“in the ancestral arms / of every season / I am heir to”: A Review of Gwen Benaway’s Poetry Collection PASSAGE

passage gwen benawayI’ve been planning to review Passage, a poetry collection by two-spirited and trans poet Gwen Benaway (Anishinaabe/Tsagli/Métis) for a while since reading it in April, but this task is now impossible to do without referencing the #AppropriationPrize shit storm that has been blowing through the Can Lit community the last week or so. If you need to get caught up on what happened, Indigenous communities’ responses to it, and why it was such a strong reminder of the enduring colonialism and racism in the Canadian writing community, please go read this powerful essay in the Winnipeg Review, “Facing the Legacy of Erasure and Cultural Appropriation in Canadian Literature,” by the very same woman whose book of poetry I’m going to talk about in a second.

Many of Benaway’s words in that essay resonate deeply for the words of poetry in Passage. I’m particularly thinking of this passage from the essay:

To be an Indigenous writer is to know a profound love and a deep pain… This is the balance of love and pain which defines being an Indigenous writer in Canada. Knowing the stories of how Canada has systematically tried to destroy, mutilate, and starve our nations off our lands and knowing how we’ve fought back for generations to resist their destruction.

This balance is visible throughout Passage, whose complex, thoughtful title I’m just starting to unravel as I write this, thinking about passage in the meaning of travel, as a way of movement, particularly through water but also as a word with the meaning I used above: a piece or excerpt of writing. It’s a brilliant title that brings together the healing powers of both the act of writing and of the land and water. This part of the poem “If” particularly resonates:

if exploration isn’t conquest,

if discovery can be shaped of visions,

if instinct is another word for truth,

if passage is more than movement,

I’ve already made it back.

One of my first thoughts as I was still in the initial stages of reading this book was that I never thought I wanted to read any Canadian poetry about nature ever again. This feeling was pretty strongly founded, especially after being forced in various Can Lit classes in university to read both boring ass and/or hella colonial stuff (cough Duncan Campbell Scott cough). As I was reading Passage, I was thinking: Thanks Gwen Benaway, for proving me wrong! This collection made me realize it wasn’t Canadian nature poetry I loathed, it was Canadian nature poetry from the perspective of settler colonialism that deserved my undying hatred.

Of course, this gorgeous, lyrical collection of poems, which are structured in sections associated with each of the Great Lakes, are about many more things than the natural world. (Although I think it may be impossible to separate land and nature from the other concerns of the collection, which makes absolute sense in relation to the key role of land rights and theft in the processes of de/colonization).

Gwen Benaway_2017Some of the other topics in Passage are tough to read about, like abuse and suicide. Benaway does not sugar coat or make it easy or simplify. I felt while reading a strong sense of bearing witness to these atrocities and the act of writing about them, as if privileged to get to watch Benaway burn away the erasure by writing and publishing these poems. In direct relation to its difficult parts, Passage is also full of beautiful moments describing land, water, and their healing powers. Benaway additionally writes about the complexities, joys, and pain of relationships, trans/gender, and sex. The joy at the end of the poem “Trans” is particularly thrilling to witness:

radiant in the exhilaration

of reaching for myself,

in showing the truth

of my mascara heart,

nothing is more beautiful


than a woman who knows

exactly what she wants

and what I want

is myself

Throughout, Benaway often uses everyday language, lulling you into thinking the poems are less complex than they actually are. I like how Jane Eaton Hamilton’s Goodreads review calls Benaway’s writing “uncluttered,” which feels like a particularly apt word for describing her style. You’re probably itching at this point to see one of the poems in Passage in its entirety. Well I would LOVE to oblige. “What I Want” was one of my personal favourites and exemplary of the unique combination of the traditionally lyrical and commonplace language in her poems:

what I want

is to be held


like the sky holds

lakewater, diffuse


and interspersed

with celestial bodies


what I want

is the slow movement


of roots along the shoreline

the drawing close of life


to what feeds it,

moisture in my lungs.


what I want

is love like winter


a cold mountain, absolute

and still in the dark


of 5 am, a certain weight

to cover all my dreaming


what I want

is a discovery of trees


in April’s sudden warmth,

to bud at a glance


my soft green lashes

threading in temporary wonder


what I want

is a boy


who knows the Northern praises

the memory of stones


in his hands, rough callus

of grief behind his eyes


who sees me coming

across the floodplain


and spreads his bones

to guide me home


along the North Shore

of my body,


what I want

is the promise


of a new land

in the ancestral arms


of every season

I am heir to.

One of the most moving parts of Benaway’s essay on cultural appropriation and erasure in Canadian literature is one of the final sentences: “Good art is not an act of violence but an extension of love.” This is without a doubt what she has accomplished in Passage, an infinitely generous, vulnerable, and beautiful book that shows just what wonderful work readers have access to when Indigenous writers are given a platform to tell their own stories. I was thrilled to see in her bio for the Winnipeg Review that she has a third collection of poetry, What I Want is Not What I Hope For, coming out from Bookthug in 2018!

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She lives and works in the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation (Nanaimo, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
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