The Big Melt by Emily Riddle (Nightwood Editions, 2022)

As I’m reading Emily Riddle’s The Big Melt in mid-November, Edmonton has surged from a sudden harsh cold to, indeed, a soft melty moment with temperatures plus enough that I can write this review around my backyard fire pit. Nightwood sent me three books by Indigenous poets for review and while I initially planned to write about them together in one post, I feel that veers in the direction of comparison/contrast, which is unfair and possibly essentialist as they are all so different. Thus, I’m taking them on (or they me) one at a time.

I was chatting with an older female poet last week and we were noting the fact that it’s become much more challenging now to write about a settler woman’s experiences due to the dual notion that identity possibly doesn’t matter that markedly for us within a contextual equality and also to the current complexities of gender that makes us hesitant to call a womb a female organ anymore (for instance). Fortunately, however, for Indigenous poets writing about identity is flowering, including poetry written by women and especially younger ones. Riddle can address her strong female lineage directly, along with bi and straight relationships, and related feminist dynamics within the powerful framework of Indigenous languages and traditional-contemporary modes of being. More of this freedom to speak of one’s irrefutable realities please.

Riddle may write, “i wish this book was just about cree joy” (kikway itwe ‘joy”), but, in a sense, The Big Melt is, holding the deeper joy of being able to address honesties, exposures, layings bare upon “the vastness of the homelands.” Riddle embeds Cree diction alongside English in the manner of Gregory Scofield, reminding those whose language is singular of defamiliarization, unsettlement and also how, if one relinquishes hegemony, of the delicious textures of the new-ancient. The Big Melt educates its reader about the palimpsested land that is called Vancouver and Edmonton (also my city of birth and adoption) where the death of the buffalo (Tell Me Why), the silences behind the origins of Fort Edmonton Park and the Rossdale Power Plant (revitalize me) and the transformation of places like the DTES’s Cecil Hotel (Learning to Count) continually mark sites of absences, concealments and lies.

Although I’m not a huge fan of the lowercase i, I loved the colour sequence “The Big Prayer,” especially “Red” on the “spleen logic” of relationships, “Yellow” that connects what the Elders say about love to bell hooks’ “assertion that love is a verb,” and “Purple” on the banning of the colour by Queen Elizabeth the First. The clash between the anthem, hockey and settler violences in “Maskwa Ponders Revolution” is sharply etched in alternating with italicization stanzas, and “Dinosaur Economics” is a solid chunk of fuck you to the tar sands that ends with the startling line: “packed up a/station wagon to the brim, fuelled by old sea creatures,” while another prose piece, “Indigiqueer Archives” potently crashes the indian act, the “climate apocalypse,” gendered laws and “twitter feeds” together to demonstrate the brutal trajectories of pasts leaking into futures. It’s a real leap, with so much that is necessary to say, to maintain a lyricism at times and The Big Melt can get talky. But for a debut collection, it’s a fearless one and may Riddle keep speaking towards singing.


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