One of the things I appreciate about being a reviewer is the challenge it poses to the breadths and depths of my ability to think outside my own immediate likes/knowledges. Unlike those who say they won’t review anything they don’t initially enjoy or comprehend (though if I hate it I won’t be fair!) or anything not in the sub-genre they prefer, I will. Because writing reviews is a learning experience for me too. Always.
I say this before I speak of Ruffo’s book because I, as the white, middleish-class, woman of sorts I am, is outside (or am I?) the materials of this text, a narrative of memoried fragments that emerge from the initial layer of a palimpsest of lies: the treaties signed between the First Nation peoples and their colonizers, compacts that were never honest, never adhered to, texts that opened up endless forms of suffering for centuries. Interspersed with the mumbo-jumbo fusion of English/Anishinabemowin interpretations of the treaties, pieces of meaningless and damaging paper signed by the X marks of the illiterate (to this mode of language), Ruffo’s Treaty # relentlessly underscores the horrors that a lax and empty use of verbiage can produce. As with Caple’s book, but more prosaically, Ruffo poses tough acts of inquiry into absence, elision, lacunae, in a racial rather than a gendered sense. Although at times, the poems sound more like story than music and even sink into a few weary cliches (“men the size of ants”/”transfixed like a deer caught blind in headlights”) or outmoded academicisms (“Construct yourself/De/con/struct yourself), the majority move. There are entrances into childhood scenes (“I am ten again…The dust from the road in my hair, clothes, mouth. When we arrive/I jump into a lake, and find I can’t swim), current realities of life where it’s “So cold the Odawa Native Friendship Centre van/scours the streets” and the “ghosts of family” remain, potent investigations of red and white “space” or red as “a poem just out of reach,” along with what constitutes a “real indian,” an anaphoric list of what to remember to teach his son (“teach him there was once a great flood/teach him it is the same flood in every culture”), a description of Pauline E Johnson’s performative dress, homages to the women who raised him, reflections on Ottawa and Sudbury, a re-telling of a traditional Anishinaabe tale, and the powerful incantation of “Terra Nullius Lingus”, a piece that names 52 of the Indigenous languages that have been lost, in a visual grave marker: “Gitksan Carrier Cree/Assiniboine Dakota Ais Alsea”, the shape a dense arrowhead of devastation. So many pictures struck me in this book in all their harsh beauties and yes I am on the edges of this narrative but yes I am also, my ancestors were also, part of this suppression, this eradication and so it is for me and my kind too, these truths. Right now, the poem “Wallace Stevens’s Memory” is sounding in my mind, with its contrast between the deceased poet’s assertion that he “never lived in time when mythology/was possible” and the lost “Mohegan, Mahican, Minisink, Nipmuc,/Pequote, Quiripi, as Stevens’s gold-feathered bird/in the broad-leafed palm at the end of a manicured/lawn sang of a life emptied of life.” Chi-miigwech, if I can say so, Armand.