Nakomowin’sa for the Seasons by Rita Bouvier
by David R. Pitt
Nakomowin’sa for the Seasons. Thistledown Press, 2015.
Rita Bouvier will immediately strike the reader as an excellent poet in Nakamowin’sa for the Seasons, her third collection of poetry. Although she discusses the feeling of being “tongue tied / by the English language” (67), she has nevertheless mastered much of its inner music. Bouvier’s verse is full and rich, but never extravagant: her voice may be voluptuous but her words and ideas are grounded and straight from the earth. She attempts a lot with this varied collection, from personal subjects like sanctifying treasured family memories, to more national topics like creating nostalgic elegies about Canadian history.
Bouvier is an accomplished social justice advocate for Indigenous peoples, and her Métis identity informs many of these poems. The title translates to “wordsongs for the seasons” and foreshadows how the reader will often find gems of Cree encrusted in these English poems. Bouvier supplies a suitable glossary that makes this text accessible and even classroom-friendly, especially considering the lack of explicit material, even in the erotic poem “thank god for waiters”. However, this does not detract from the poem, which features the velvety lines:
She licks her lips before she takes a long sip,
not wanting, ever
to finish that earthy, supple glass of wine. (32)
This poem is gratifyingly simple, subtle, and sensuous—a winning combination for effective verse. These three characteristics are common in this collection and lend her poetry simultaneous beauty and directness. Bouvier acheives this delicate balance sometimes through her use of the Cree language: “all she can do is hold on tight, / in case osimisa wander out / into the night” (49), condensing the clunky English phrase ‘her younger siblings’ into one elegant word, osimisa. There is a clear advantage in using two languages to enrich the musicality of these poems, as doing so gives her more options to optimally distribute beats and stresses to achieve an uncommonly rhythmic quality. The poem “the map of my heart” exemplifies this dynamic as a poem about the European tradition of defining knowledge of a land through drawn maps and written names, both referred to as types of ‘claims’—which of course evokes European-style land-claims. The Indigenous speaker points out the shortcomings of this paper knowledge as “without body without spirit” (68), emphasizing its inherent incompleteness with a gap in the text. A more holistic map, the speaker says, “lies in the languages” and “the memories of the people, / the soft rhythms of their knowing” (68) of the peoples who have occupied those lands for thousands of years. The poem alights into a song of side-by-side Cree phrases and English translations, as the speaker shares the tangible joy of their native tongue with readers who are not already familiar with it. It is a poem that proves what it claims.
In terms of the contemporary appeal of these poems, Bouvier touches on many current topics of interest to a general readership: cultural appropriation, residential schools, and colonialism. Bouvier’s approach to these issues is very focused on the emotional impact of the past on the surviving families. For instance, the poem “reconciliation—a found poem” is a carefully selected excerpt from a formal apology for residential schools from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate that articulates the hypocrisy of apologizing with an eye to the damage these schools did to the reputation of the Church rather than to the generations of emotional harm done to children separated from their families. Its sister poem, “truth,” seeks not apology but recognition and the space “to begin to describe / the indignity—the injury of separation— / of being pulled from a mother’s arms” (72). Bouvier’s powerful, often understated style in discussing the emotional toll of history is one of the chief strengths of this collection.
Some readers may shy away from poems so heavy with pain, but it is important to note that Bouvier’s outrage underscores what a pure source of happiness family can be. Poems such as “truth” build on the tenderness of numerous poems celebrating family memories, and the sweetest of these are the poems about raising a son: upon seeing their new child, the parents think of him, “small, / you were so small. disarmed, we fell in love.” (16). Poems such as “ten turned sixteen” and “catch me if you can” are simple, straightforward destriptions of domestic life, and are among the most memorable in this volume because of the pure joy they communicate. Bouvier conveys emotions and memories with both precision and power; therefore, Nakamowin’sa is a rich experience that both casual and academic readers can appreciate.