Poet dissects the history of Frog Lake

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February 5, 2015

Massacre Street

By Paul Zits

The University of Alberta Press

107 pages, $ 19.95

Reviewed by Lorne Daniel

Don’t expect a smooth lyrical narrative from Calgary poet Paul Zits’s first book, Massacre Street. The book takes an off-kilter look at the Frog Lake massacre of 1885, an event early in the North-West Rebellion in which a group of Cree men killed government Indian agent Thomas Quinn and shot eight other white settlers dead. Many writers have grappled with the telling of this defining event in Canadian and First Nations’ history, approaching it through poetry, fiction and various forms of non-fiction. Here, Zits pulls apart the pieces of history and patches them together in a jagged collage.

This is the author not as storyteller but as provocateur and questioner. Using archival records and sources like William Bleasdell Cameron’s The War Trial of Big Bear (a key source, as well, for Rudy Wiebe’s novel The Temptations of Big Bear), the poet invites the reader to create new meaning from the juxtaposition of voices and documents. Zits was recognized with a Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry at the 2014 Alberta Literary Awards for his work.

Unlike much contemporary poetry, this is not a personalized, internalized exploration. Zits, the author, is not highly visible in Massacre Street. Certainly, the writer’s hand is evident in the selection and placement of the pieces that form this collage and in the poems that stitch the historic segments together. Consider, he says, the wildly differing worlds of those who participated in the rebellion, the police and informal militia, the court functionaries, the Metis people who remembered some of the events, or oral accounts of them.

Any writer trying to address multiple viewpoints in this clash of cultures must consider and integrate the perspective of “other” cultures – ones he doesn’t belong to. In this case, understanding and representing cultures that thrived on oral storytelling is particularly difficult. It is inevitable that a writer using primarily written archives, as Zits does, will be limited in expressing voices from an oral culture. To address this, Massacre Street pulls Metis and First Nations voices from tapes and transcripts and makes creative use of their different cadence and content to offset the dominant English Canadian voices.

In one section, “The Inadvertent Poetry of Major-General Thomas Bland Strange,” the book pulls phrases from Strange’s 1896 autobiography, Gunner Jingo’s Jubilee, and repurposes them in a newly fractured syntax.

The resulting book is challenging, in all senses of the word. Massacre Street is not an easy read. It forces readers to bridge the gaps and implicitly invites them to dig more deeply into questions of the post-massacre Canadian psyche. As is the way with works of deconstruction, it asks us to start over and reconsider what we thought we understood.

Lorne Daniel is at work on his fifth collection of poetry and a book about Alberta oil country that braids poetry with non-fiction.

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