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Full review from Prairie Fire

John Herbert Cunningham's review of Little Hunger from the December 2010 edition of Prairie Fire:

Little Hunger
by Philip Kevin Paul

Reviewed by John Herbert Cunningham

A member of the Sencoten First Nation from the Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island who claims that he has “had the same phone number and address my entire life and I live on the land that, who knows how long my family has been living on it,” Philip Kevin Paul writes out of the voice of this land in his second Nightwood Editions book. His first, Taking the Names Down from the Hill (2003), received strong critical acclaim.

“On Their Wedding Anniversary” is directed both to a physical and a metaphysical father and mother pulling no punches on the political front, the first stanza referring to “stolen islands.” But it is the third that gives birth to Paul:

And my mother? She waited for the peace
she knew was coming. She waited for a love
she knew would rise in her husband
and be enough. She waited for a time he would go
all the way into the true heart of his territory,
and come all the way back home. She waited
at the doorway of their fine language. (12)

This is poetry written by an exceptional poet, one without the epitaph ‘aboriginal’ interceding between those two words.

There has been a movement in recent decades within Aboriginal writers’ circles in both North and South America to include words from Aboriginal languages in a macaronic approach to writing. In South and Latin America, this is referred to as “mestizo” poetry and excellent examples can be found in The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry (2009). Paul has taken up this approach – an approach that will, hopefully, revive otherwise dying languages. We read in the third part of “Being Turned Back”:

The buck lowers its head and shakes it as though to show me his antlers are well attached. When he lifts his head back up he grunts out a steamy snort. I don’t look into his eyes, aware I must be human stench above all else; only ten feet away, I fear being seen as I am, or to insult his weak eyes by looking into them. Using his best SENĆOŦEN name I ask which way he’s planning to run so I can stay out of the way. (28)

We see here the universal Aboriginal spiritual concept of the interrelatedness of all life – the same thing we find in the lines connecting all life forms in a Jackson Beardy print.

A similar approach appears in other poems throughout Little Hunger. Here is an example from “If you Remember the Names of the Winds”:

From the few words the two winds need
to exchange, a snow whirls, breaking
the tense rising of the spring.
JÁN ÍY CENs NENET ĆELĆELANEN
an old man blabbers drunkenly up
from a park bench, an awakening
flatly dismissed by passersby. (83)

The macaronic line (there should be a slash through the first “C” and a slash through the last “A”) is translated in the next stanza as “Welcome home Ancient Ones.” There is something absent, something we desperately need to revive in our modern, scientific world captured by that phrase. Life is a little emptier when we have lost touch with our world, when it doesn’t affect us, when it isn’t as close to us as it is to Paul. We need his, and other voices like his, to remind us – not of what we’ve lost, not of what we’ve given up in the name of progress, but of what we can still have if we remember.

That same sentiment is found in the long poem “Pathway” where, in the last stanza, we find these words:

You’ve been shown
the long, casual stride
of seasons. Each season
is much taller than all
the pungent wild land
that owns you.
Each season walking
with its head tipped
slightly up, as if dreaming.
You will never see their faces. (70)

Paul takes us back into the land of Jungian archetypes where the world comes alive for us. We need writers like him or else we will forget the softness of the wind’s hand as it caresses our faces.

Click here to read the December 2010 edition of Prairie Fire online.