Reviewed by Gregory Betts
Louis: The Heretic Poems. Nightwoods Editions, 2011.
Natalie Zina Walschots
DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains. Insomniac, 2012.
I was asked to review Gregory Scofield’s Louis: The Heretic Poems, a rather tidy collection of lyrics exploring the singular life of the Founding Father of Manitoba who was executed for treason in 1885. Hardly exploring the idea of the heretic, Scofield’s book presents instead a timely attempt to advance the piety of Riel, adding personal details and private feelings to his story – “I am a poet / With auburn-brown hair” (23) –, but also by situating Riel in the context of First Nations response and resistance to settler culture violence: “For the land is our Kingdom / and the power of our children, / forever and ever” (34). Though the devout Riel would have likely abhorred such blasphemy in rendering the Lord’s Prayer a poem of terrestrial politics, such lines endeavor to twist Riel’s revolutionary mythology around what we know of his radical Christianity and thereby represent his passionate intensity.
As I read and re-read the book, however, connections to and associations with Riel began flooding in, overwhelming my singular focus on Scofield’s reinterpretation. Riel is our most beloved and fascinating villain: a triumphant rebel, a denuded prophet, a victim, a martyr, and more. One version of his story can no longer be read or treated in isolation: he is ever-increasingly a public event. I wrote a poem about Riel once, linking him to the now regularly demonized Sir John A. MacDonald, his predictable rival model of masculine heroism. In preparing for this review, however, I realized that this is an increasingly irrelevant juxtaposition. MacDonald has been humanized and memorialized, reduced; Riel remains vibrant and wild, locked in the realm of myth. We already have Riel walking tours, t-shirts, graffiti, and comic books; we may one day add Che Guevera style soft drinks as well. Scofield’s text, in humanizing Riel, runs counter to and fully ignores the ongoing mythologization.
With regards to what Riel has become in this culture, Natalie Zina Walschots’ DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains suggests far better contemporary counterpoints than my turn to MacDonald. Her catalogue of tributes to comic book villains captures the allure of antagonism that goes back in Western imaginations to at least Milton’s exquisite portrait of Satan. Unlike Milton, however, who but slowly backs away from his divine Lucifer, Walschots’ narrator confesses her attraction to such sinister figures as Marvel Comics' Mastermind and revels in the imaginary trysts:
each breath percussive
you murmur paracusia
your voice glittering fish
lesions on my brainstem
like kisses on my neck (112)
More than Miltonic, the lush language of her poems embodies the Freudian eroticization of darkness - the sexual flirtation with the death drive - and enables a realm of vicarious and imaginary carnal satisfaction through sensual association with evil. The function of myth is intertwined with just such a flirtation with power and deviance. Rebellion itself partakes in myth through its carnal disruption of consensual (i.e. imagined) reality, which helps to explain the ongoing fascination with figures like Riel that openly defy order. Furthermore, as every comic book reader knows, the strength of a hero can only be measured by the power of her rival. But unlike heroes, the imaginary rebellion of villains provokes a rupture in the social contract by dangling the possibility of radical change in the mind’s eye. Walschots’ text is written with a self-conscious awareness of her attraction to deviance: “each sodden newspaper / breeding villainy” (57). At the heart of great villains lies an imagined, potential antidote to what ails their world.
Scofield, in contrast, skirts self-consciousness in his engagement with the mythologization of Riel, the century-and-a-quarter of palimpsestuous tellings and retellings of this old story that have reversed and dispersed the meaning of his rebellion to impossibly contradictory ends: Riel has been embraced by both conservative Western alienationists and progressive Marxist Canadian environmentalists alike, and also served as martyr for all parts of his bloodline, French Canadian Catholics, Métis, and First Nations. Scofield, working from the rhetoric of the latter, enters this dialogical minefield in order to celebrate Riel through mimetic depictions of his experience of love, devotion, and sacrifice: “the jewel of the half-breeds, our ruby, mitehnan our heart” (73). It is, of course, another turn in the ideological deployment of Riel – in this case as noble native hero, as devoted and loving husband willing to sacrifice his creature comforts to fight against injustice: “I give unto thee my sorrow of waking” (79).
Riel’s untainted, humanized heroism in these poems is matched by MacDonald’s equally exaggerated demonism. MacDonald is reduced to the mere caricature of a villain, possessing all of the familiar traits of the role – unnuanced and unmitigated hatred, wantonness, drunkenness, and bile. While this mockery serves a political purpose, by the logic of comic book antagonisms it unfortunately serves to conversely reduce Scofield’s Riel into a rather flat, unconflicted character (in contrast, the most powerful literary antagonisms are almost always haunted by the innuendo of a perverse mutual attraction). Similarly, from a historical perspective, Scofield has erased many of the bugaboos which add complexity and nuance to Riel: gone are any questions or evidence of Riel’s insanity, or the question of Riel’s own racism against full-blooded natives. Meanwhile, Riel’s disaster as a military strategist, evidenced by his order that Gabriel Dumont lower all weapons and trust God alone—which at the least diminished the impact of the rebellion and was at best perfectly delusional—is forgiven as a loveable, sanctimonious quirk: “And then I laugh. I see you, my Riel, aiming the cross as if God and the Virgin, all three of you in golden light, will defeat their guns” (72). This intriguingly non-historical Riel extends to the level of metaphor as well. When Scofield writes from Riel’s perspective that “All spring they arrived and by fall / the surveyor’s stakes sprang up like crosses” (29), Scofield’s Riel is conflating the arrival of European settlers with the arrival of European settler culture. It might seem a natural connection, especially in light of contemporary judgments of that historical moment, except that Scofield’s assumption that these things would be equally unwelcome to Riel completely contradicts his intellectual and religious ambitions: he was a man rebelling against settler land claims while actively working to relocate the Vatican to Winnipeg. For such a man, the appearance of crosses or other markers of Christian culture would have been entirely welcome, whereas the appearance of surveyor stakes led – though even there not directly – to the rebellion. It is beyond the purview of my short review to detail Riel’s preference for the French seigneurial surveyance method.
This is obviously not a book interested in the nuance of history, but one that is invested in the use of historical narrative and detail as argument – one that delights in imagining MacDonald the “bastard” burning in Hell: “Savour sweet his choking” (67). It is, in its own way, a reversal of the Orangemen poems that circulated in the nineteenth century that exploited the gothic insinuations of the savage to advance their political goals. While this historical reversal is interesting in and of itself, and satisfying in its historical symmetry, didactic poems for progressives have the same emotional appeal of all didactic poems for their intended audience: confirming beliefs through distortion rather than nuance (which is, in fact, the true opposite to racism). To quote Jan Zwicky’s recently recirculated essay against negative reviews, “theses and arguments — the stuff of politics — are rarely the building materials of artistic insight.” In these two books, then, it is ironic to discover that the cliché of the flat and two-dimensional comic book character has been reversed in writing about real politics versus imaginary amorousness, which is precisely why, as a politics of representation, Walschots provides a productive juxtaposition to Scofield. Her text presents an alternative model to the good/evil caricature of conflict in Scofield’s text. While Scofield has managed to add a new version of Riel to the field of Riels that circulate, the story of Riel remains a perfect opportunity to explore the problem of history, the dangers of political interpretations of facts, and the deep desire to associate with figures of transgression. As Walschots writes in her lush field of linguistic tributes to the demigods of contemporary mythology, “let me extinguish myself / in your hunger” (114).
At press time: Gregory Betts is the Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Brock University. He is the author of Avant Garde Canadian Literature: The Early Manifestations (University of Toronto Press, 2012). His most recent books of poetry include The Obvious Flap (with Gary Barwin; BookThug 2011) and The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar 2009).
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