Dead White Men
Coach House Books, 2017.
$18.95, 96 pages.
“We French, we English, never lost our civil war
endure it still, a bloodless civil bore;
no wounded lying about, no Whitman wanted.
It’s only by our lack of ghosts we’re haunted.”
—Earle Birney, “Can. Lit.”
Settler Canadian literature has a long legacy of legitimizing the state’s colonial project by deploying various rhetorical strategies, including blatantly racist depictions of Indigenous people, indigenization of the settler through romanticized accounts of pioneer life, and erasure of Indigenous presence in revisionist fantasies of a bicultural (English and French) national heritage. Given this troubling historical complicity in creating “the settler problem”—a condition Paulette Regan aptly summarizes as an ongoing “misguided, obsessive, and mythical quest to assuage colonizer guilt by solving the Indian problem”—contemporary settler Canadian literature faces a tricky predicament. When it comes to decolonization initiatives, there is a strong moral imperative to both step up and step aside.
Shane Rhodes’ sixth book, Dead White Men, is a must-read in part because of its ability to constructively navigate the aforementioned paradox. In this collection, Rhodes combines a confident command of the craft with an extensive recalibration of ethical engagement. Deliberately venturing far beyond (but never entirely abandoning) the “expected poetic building blocks of classical allusion, metaphor, simile, rhyme and rhythm” (as he describes in his essay “Reuse and Recycle: Finding Poetry in Canada“), he commits to probing and perfecting “poetry’s ability to interrogate histories and engineer a critical space for dissention, commentary and argument.” Incorporating a plethora of innovative and self-reflexive strategies, including deft paratextual framing, found poetry, visual/concrete poetry, and auto-ethnographic notes, Rhodes has assembled a work of astonishing intricacy and audacity.
The first thing a reader will notice is likely that the book is divided into two halves, each side inverted and upside-down in relation to the other. What I refer to as Side A contains two segments: “what is history / a whitish story” and “this country of science my soul.” These sections grapple with a wide array of textual remnants of “New World” contact and conquest, including explorers’ journals, scientific publications, news reports of mining disasters, and archival accounts of gold-seeking expeditions. Side B is dedicated to “transit”—it is an extended inquiry into the 1769 measurement of the Transit of Venus (which over 170 observers reported from 77 posts around the world). The collection can be read in either direction, but it must be physically flipped in order to switch between the two sides. This disorienting organization is at the core of Rhodes’ overall approach: relentless, evocative insistence on embodied engagement and cognitive discomfort. Just as the poet unequivocally rejects postcolonial blandishments premised on politesse and palatability, the reader must relinquish every illusion of personal detachment.
The title poem of the collection, also the opening poem of Side A, serves as an ars poetica and as a de facto manifesto for a particular reading protocol. The poem’s title is horizontally printed, positioned at the left hand side of the first page—a basic convention in the Western tradition since Gutenberg—but the actual poem unfolds in vertically oriented lines across four pages, harkening back to the continual textual flows of papyrus scrolls. This layout offers a poignant illustration of how avant-garde aesthetics can prompt and enable a deeper consideration of postcolonial ethics. Rhodes turns our attention to the fraught practice of ideological self-positioning by dramatizing/problematizing the link between personal and political. In this poem, the rhetorical is indelibly transformed into the literal. Maintaining our accustomed hold on the book (orienting ourselves by the “Dead White Men” at the top of the page) necessitates craning the neck to a 90 degree angle in order to keep reading; reading the text with a level head necessitates turning the book by 90 degrees (letting “Dead White Men” become a downward facing vertical line in the margins). In shaping a reading experience that constantly highlights the stark differences between abstract and embodied, Rhodes compels readers to recognize their own complicity and accountability in shaping contemporary narratives of history, culture, and identity.
After this initial act of (dis)orientation, the poem charts a visceral representation of Canada’s colonial scorched-earth sprawl:
Men sans pigment searching the firmament
for fragments of land, something immense
in the mangrove to smear their names upon,
something to dominate with their unsheathed instruments.
. . .
From sea to sea, men annulling.
Here, as throughout the text, Rhodes is unflinching in his depiction of European contact/conquest as a toxic mix of masculine arrogance, white supremacy, imperial greed, and intrinsic misogyny.
However, he also knows that numerous external factors—tolerance for eviscerating cultural criticism, predisposition toward introspective self-interrogation, enjoyment of stylistic pyrotechnic—will have a determining effect on whether or not a reader moves beyond this juncture. As such, he sometimes attempts to temper the text’s potentially-alienating effects by including small moments of levity and intimacy. For example, there is an inviting, amusing frankness to the wordplay that propels this early exploration of identity, privilege, and process:
Not man enough! Not white enough! Not dead enough!
I am but a simple man, dickered with doubt,
tanned pinkish beige by my computer screen,
uncovering documents of men discovering men—
manipulative amanuensis to their dictation,
I shell poems from prose and give them home.
Of course, strategic uses of irony and sincerity can only go so far, and it is not difficult to imagine a whole range of hostile reactions to this collection’s poetics and politics. It is perhaps most important to unpack the wider implications of Rhodes’ choice to incorporate material from such vastly different temporal, generic, and territorial categories—Renaissance to recent, scientific to epistolary, or national to international.
Dead White Men obviously aims to do more than merely catalogue and chastise various acts of colonial injustice. In this collection, Rhodes reveals the essential mechanisms of colonialism itself, and in doing so he strives to provide a manifold corrective to hegemonic historical paradigms. While we can certainly read Dead White Men as an entirely autonomous entity, I would argue that it is prudent and productive to consider how it relates to Rhodes’ earlier texts. In many ways, Dead White Men constitutes a logical progression of Rhodes’ longstanding preoccupations, and an extension of previous endeavours. Reading over the last ten years of his work, we can see a clear trajectory of increasingly complex articulations of personal/collective embeddedness in colonial ideologies and realities.
Consider this section of the poem “Portrait” from his 2007 collection The Bindery, where Rhodes traces the concurrent, crisscrossing threads of family history and Canadian colonial policy:
pumped their lives
through the long mineral haul
of his body’s blood.
. . .
from the retreating Cree
to the south and north
through treaties number 7 and 6
every ownership thereafter
of the dammed-up wealth
the land acquired.”
Operating within the conventions of the (experimental) lyric tradition, Rhodes offers a personal counter-narrative to canonical works of settler Canadian literature in which similar depictions of “pioneering” agricultural cultivation and grueling domestic labour often collaborate to erase Indigenous presence and indigenize the settler. Significantly, “Portrait” is preceded by “Within the Limits Herein Defined: A found poem,” in which Rhodes pares down the dense legal discourse of Treaty 6 in order to foreground the relationship between prior utterances and ongoing dispossession, violation, and violence.
Rhodes continues to build on these initiatives by undertaking a much wider, much deeper excavation of colonial power structures in X: Poems and Anti-Poems (Nightwood Editions, 2013). In X, he brings together and then deconstructs numerous textual registries—including government transcripts of the “numbered treaties,” the Indian Act, and contemporary reactions to Idle No More—all the while asking, “What are the stories and myths that our settler society continues to tell itself to rationalise, normalize, and forget the original acts of land appropriation and settlement?” Consequently, X is a sustained, searing rebuttal to settler entitlement and ignorance (feigned or real). Earle Birney’s earlier (satirical, but not in a “critique of settler colonialism” way) dismissal of Canada’s founding violence as “a bloodless civil bore” is succinctly lambasted in this memorable stanza:
though the language was cleansed
and the history bleached
the Indian wars
have not ended.
Dead White Men extends this critique to address Birney’s next set of fallacies: “no wounded lying about, no Whitman wanted. / It’s only by our lack of ghosts we’re haunted.” Rhodes fills the pages with numerous-publicly displayed statues of men like Samuel de Champlain, John Franklin, Jacques Cartier, and James Cook. These full-body silhouettes are interspersed with extreme close-ups of Hamilton McCarthy’s statue of Indigenous scout Kitchi Zibi Omàmìwininì Anishinàbe, installed in 1924 to kneel at the foot of McCarthy’s statue of Samuel de Champlain. As Rhodes summarizes in the “notes” to Side A, the two statues stood in Canada’s capital until 1999, when, “[a]fter complaints from the Assembly of First Nations about [the scout’s] subservient position and demeaning clothing, it was relocated . . . to a nearly park where it currently resides, crouched in the bushes.” The text’s visual elements present an elegant and elegiac summary of our national political climate: landscapes pitted with statues still looming over their old haunts, a legal system littered with statutes still working to sideline the “unwanted.”
Dead White Men’s immense interpretive richness comes into focus as a deliberate companion collection to X. Various thematic and stylistic similarities—the coordinating black and white covers and shared divided-and-inverted internal organization—signal the conversation between these texts. For example, there is a fascinating dialogue under way between “White Noise,” the Side B poem in X, and “transit,” the Side B poem in Dead White Men. Through this act of (re)framing, Rhodes rightfully asks readers to locate the links between contemporary public discourses on race, land rights, and Indigeneity (“White Noise”) and the foundational (epistemological, global) mechanisms of colonialism itself (“transit”).
It is crucial to stress that after decades of large-scale decolonizing initiatives—Oka Resistance, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Truth and Reconciliation, Idle No More—and countless remarkable interventions by Indigenous scholars and artists, the insights in Dead White Men should not come as a surprise or be hailed as a revelation. In 2017, settler Canadians should think twice about how quickly and how reverently we leap to praise even the most earnest efforts to “unsettle the settler within,” as Regan said. In light of recent events in the Canadian public sphere, including the Boyden controversy, the “Appropriation Prize” fiasco, and Senator Lynn Beyak’s ongoing barrage of neocolonial rhetoric, it bears repeating that decolonization will always hinge upon dismantling the oppressive power structures that have historically silenced Indigenous political and cultural expression.
As Jeanette Armstrong powerfully reminds us in her essay “The Disempowerment of First North American Native Peoples and Empowerment Through Their Writing,” no amount of enlightened settler discourse can substitute autonomous Indigenous expression. It is vital to continue making space for Indigenous voices, and we should strive to evaluate Rhodes’ poetics alongside recent work by Indigenous writers like Jordan Abel (Injun) and Liz Howard (the “Song of Hereafter” section in Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent), where found poetry invokes different textual tensions, generating unique resonances. That said, Shane Rhodes once again shows great skill and integrity in answering Armstrong’s call for “writers from the dominant society” to “turn over some of the rocks in your own garden for examination” and “imagine interpreting for us your own people’s thinking towards us, instead of interpreting for us, our thinking, our lives, our stories.” Dead White Men is a valuable contribution, because it manages to both step up and step aside.
Maša Torbica (@m_torbica) is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo and a fiction editor at The New Quarterly