river woman

By Katherena Vermette
House of Anansi, January 1, 2018, 19.95

I need to hear
the stories of the river
about when she was young
and her brown water

-Katherena Vermette, “riverstory”

The Red River, the focus of Katherena Vermette’s second book of poetry, river woman, begins its journey north at the confluence of the rivers Bois de Sioux and Otter Trails. As it twists and turns through industrial, urban and agricultural lands, it both forms borders and flouts them, tracing out the line that delineates Minnesota and North Dakota before pushing its way into Manitoba.

Mussels, clams, snails and crayfish, as well as walleye, northern pike, channel catfish, burbot and crappie, make their home in its brown waters, and its banks are lined with willow, cottonwood, Manitoba maple and bur oak, amongst other flora and fauna.

Measuring roughly 885 kilometres in distance, the Red finds its eventual home in Lake Winnipeg, whose waters sit in relation to the Nelson River and the Hudson Bay. It is a storied river with a starring role in the history of colonization, its watershed having helped to mark the territory which, for 100 years, was owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).

The Red, of course, is also intimately connected to the Métis people, whom the poet and novelist Vermette identifies as kin. The first Métis settlement was established where the Assiniboine meets the Red, and Métis families anchored their lives to her banks through the long plots of the French seigneurial system. Métis traders worked her waters to connect their furs to both the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company, headquartered in Montreal.

As Vermette demonstrates, the Red is many things to many people:

she is

river woman is a series of meditations on the Red River. Vermette, who shook the literary world with her 2016 novel The Break, lovingly depicts this river as mother and sister. She reflects on its powers as a lover, healer and most importantly, as a living being.

In her careful reflections on the Red as kin, these poems are rich in their exploration of the spaces between simile and metaphor, calling out to the ways in which the water mirrors human relations and then pivoting to meditate on the ways in which it founds and nurtures community: “she is / river / like / and not,” the narrator informs us in poem two of the “ziibiwan” series. “she is / the knowing / not unknown.”

With gentle, staccato lines cushioned within a rich imagery of love and longing, Vermette slowly and purposefully guides her audience to read with the Red. Her narrators call for us to interpret its waters beyond the grammars of colonization and towards a decolonial relation with the natural environment. In these readings, the Red is not a trade route or a border; it is an articulation of the land and a founding centre of Indigenous relationships and poetics. Vermette perhaps most succinctly establishes this in the book’s longest and most pointed poem, “this river”:

…this river
doesn’t need your attention or your inquiry
this river is too busy
doing what she has always done —
kicking ass and taking care

this river is full
this river is family
this river is forever
because this river
of course
is red

“Red,” the word that punctuates, “this river,” can be interpreted in a number of ways. First, symbolically, in how it connotes Indigeneity and therefore in how it formulates the river as kin. Yet, received aurally, “red” can also articulate itself as the past tense of “read.” Consider how deeply the Red — in its relation to the HBC and state removal of Métis people — has been interpreted into the history of settler colonialism in Canada.

Vermette’s narrators, however, refuse the axiomatic nature of colonial interpretation, striving instead to read the brown body of water towards Indigenous histories, presents, and futures, towards a signification of land-based knowledges. In this sense, river woman reaches to articulate the Red against the centripetal pull of colonial signification, bringing meaning back to rest within the waters and shores themselves.

Fittingly, river woman ends with a poem about reading through and beyond the colonial narratives that have been inscribed on stolen Indigenous lands, towards a resurgence that is always already present in the river’s currents. And while settler narratives may, at times, seem indelible, Vermette concludes by reminding us that “this country has an other story,” a story that resides in the land and water waiting patiently to be heard:

this country has an other story
one that is not mine
or yours
but ours
it is sung
from the mountains
danced in the sky
every star
a story
that teaches
hold your head up

Like all of Vermette’s work, river woman sparkles with the intimacy of place. Within the delicate frames of each poem in this book hang richly complex tapestries of love and language that speak to tenderness, community, and Indigenous relationships to land and water.

I read river woman three times in a row, and with each new reading Vermette’s poetic control and expositive flourish opened me to new relations between land, language and poetics. For those who love nature poetry, aesthetic interventions into politics, or the Red River, I can only offer my highest recommendation for this book. As a significant tributary to Indigenous literary production, and as a river of meaning unto itself, river woman is a stirring invocation of love poetry written through the aesthetics and politics of land and water.

David Gaertner is a settler scholar of German descent and an Assistant Professor in the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia, where he researches Indigenous literature and new media. He is also an Associate Editor of BC Studies and a Green College Leading Scholar. He is the editor of Sôhkêyihta: The Poetry of Louise Bernice Halfe and the co-editor of Read, Listen, Tell: Indigenous Stories from Turtle Island, both available from Wilfrid Laurier University Press. David blogs at www.novelalliances.com. This review originally appeared in The Journal of Mennonite Studies.

Image: Robert Lindsdell/Flickr

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