Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent
McClelland & Stewart
320 Front Street West, Suite 1400
Toronto, Ontario, M5V 3B6
2015, 112 pp., $18.95, 9780771038372
A citizen’s outward efforts to belong are sometimes in conflict with her inward skepticism of that very same impulse. In Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, Liz Howard explores these competing energies both thematically and conceptually, using tactics that manipulate time—repetition, refraction, recombination—to create a sort of textual vertigo. She bookends the collection with sections both called “Hyperboreal”; she returns again and again to interrogate concepts like “Standard Time”; and, using an effect she calls dendrochronology, she retreads the first fourteen poems of the book to fashion the penultimate sonnet and three other “Revenant” poems that haunt the final pages. Overlaps and gaps create a cacophony that disrupts any stable or linear voice, and, listening to the speakers, the reader swoons over “this sinkhole of time called the present,” caught in a kind of orbit, a time loop, dendrochronology, ring time, slow time, boreal time.
These structural bones are key to Howard’s project in Infinite Citizen, which subverts the notion of a temporal global citizen—whose transnational arrivals clock by “illicit” standard time—by teasing out a messy, disquieted, infinite citizen—one in need of a jiisakiiwini and a shaking tent rite (“wherein spirits are consulted to obtain beyond human knowledge”). This cosmic resident is far from free of the material concerns of embodiment and community, though. In fact, her rootedness to the land is essential to one of the book’s key questions: “is this an indigenous or occidental dream?” The occidental/indigenous binary represents a schism in the Canadian self, as one citizenship has attempted to erase and overwrite another. Howard herself is a Westerner and Anishinaabe, and in her “Notes” at the end of the book she explains, “[a]s I am both settler and Indigenous, the text may contain the sweet horrors of my diary, a girlish self-narrative that arose from the once-irreconcilable.”
Howard’s employment of time thus acquires yet more context: it’s not only the unit by which we measure individual progression and experience, but it’s history contained in bodies, the “reconciliation” of conflict through intermarriage and children, intergenerational trauma encasing lives like tree rings. Her speakers confront the injustice of settler citizenship—its predatory hegemony—both on a personal and a societal scale. Howard’s own multiplicity extends to vocations as poet and cognition research officer, and, in some of the poems, speakers confront this plurality as discord within the self:
in another dream
I’m to photograph
three women who face me
with their babies
bundled in their arms
poet scientist Anishinaabe
smile at me
and one by one
explode into flames
These multiple identities, here externalized and objectified, are vulnerable—the products of their labour and love in danger of detonation, production becoming destruction.
And, just as the psyche is vulnerable to combustion, so too is the family, the foundation of inherited self-hood. Poems like “Look Book” expose wounds in the lives of individual parents and children:
… somewhere my
birth father is drunk and
homeless, half-mad when
the cops ask for his name
he’ll say, December
This same father seems to appear in a poem called “Knausgaard, Nova Scotia,” published on Dusie a few months after Infinite Citizen’s release:
I just walked the street of my father. The street is called North.
North is the repository of our best intentions, Ursa Major
overhead when I am exactly this old in a winter
without fathers. He left when I was an infant
to take on liquid. He took himself away.
This stunning long poem touches on some moments that helpfully allow me to elaborate on Howard’s treatment of family and landscape. In one poem, a father calls himself December. In another, his street is called North. “Hyperboreal” refers to the land beyond the North Wind that, according to Greek mythology, was idyllic, free from disease and old age, its people subject to neither work nor war—a concept perhaps akin to Howard’s “repository of our best intentions,” an idealized version of who the father could have been had he not been psychically damaged.
Howard dwells on multiple versions of the north, both Western and Indigenous. Referring to the boreal landscape by Greek, English, and Anishinaabe names (“Bowating: original name for Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario”), she expresses herself as a code-weaving poet, one who speaks in multiple tongues and allows those tongues to speak to each other, side by side on the page. These diverse ideas of the north match the complex experiences of its denizens, for whom the landscape is a source of both strength and hardship. Take, for instance, this upsetting scene where a baby is tempered by the cold:
the fuel we burn for heat
dissipates I find
my brother sitting
blue-tinged in his crib
mucus freezing to his
tiny upper lip
Despite this distress, despite winter’s bite, Howard’s characters are “Melancholic in these days of warming”—as we all are, or should be. She cultivates a complex and powerful vision of the north that effectively links the catastrophe of climate change with the violence of colonization.
This is how she turns the intimate sadness within families into much broader commentary, speakers addressing systemic damage: “If I moan from an animal throat it is in hope you / will return to me what I lost learning to speak.” The contemporaneity of Truth and Reconciliation Commission testimony should make it evident to readers that Howard references the loss of language and culture suffered by survivors of Canada’s Residential School system. In “Contact”:
the women of bitumen looked over tailing ponds
like a cloud-rack of a tempest
rushed the pale canoes of wings and thunder
to kill the wilderness in the child
sweeping westward our remnants
sulphur infinite, sorrow extracted tuberculosis
under the jurisdiction of ravens
in the covert of pine trees
or an education by thieves in the evening.
The “education by thieves” is a force of impoverishment, disease, sexual abuse (students’ “evening” learning), and cultural genocide—killing the wilderness in the child (a reference to the colonial cliché of killing the Indian in the child), and often killing the child, too. The land itself is tortured and expunged, the tailing ponds spreading like inkblots (in another poem, Howard skillfully calls this transformation terraforming, eerily reversing its definition). Wilderness gives way to something else—maybe something sinister, maybe something merely desolate and sterile—and the exhumed bitumen offers a new, poisonous landscape, “sulphur infinite.” This poison resides inside the speakers themselves, changing their bodies in step with the changing land, and one’s “heart / bec[o]me[s] an oil tanker fantastic.”
Significantly, the tension Howard builds in her critique of colonialism and capitalism is amplified by an internal discomfort that springs from her speakers’ acknowledged settler lineage. Howard’s voices have inherited Western literature, philosophy, science: beyond invoking Greek mythology, the poems employ Latin, quote Wittgenstein, and cite the vocabulary of institutionalized scientific study. In other words, her speakers are scholars, bearing witness to colonial injustice while grappling with a desire to employ knowledge acquired via Western education. There’s both sadness and joy here. Joy because the poems so beautifully make use of specialized and academic language, and sadness in the loss this language overwrites:
Sons and daughters of the liberal arts
all my life has spurned a desire for more than
a power line of injured transistors
fetal alcohol syndrome, oil drums sunk
to the bottom of every lake, the aurora borealis
an overdose along the magnetized pole
what we are offered in lieu of a soul
It’s disquieting, the liberal arts’ implication in a colonial legacy, as the humanities are so often defended as a humanizing force, a way to build empathy. And Howard is obviously stirred, to some extent, with the products of her own learning—the virtuosic crafting of these poems within traditions of the lyric and the conceptual feels like the work of a poet in love with worlds she can build from the tools at hand, including those of the master. But this dilemma is crucial to Howard’s powerful exploration of identity.
For instance, the book’s section called “Of Hereafter Song” is described in Howard’s “Notes” as a hijacking of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha—a colonial expropriation of Anishinaabe history and mythology. By appropriating Longfellow’s appropriative text, Howard “engages the systemic tentacles of assimilation as they unfurl within and possibly enclose the contemporary New World.” The “linguistic performance” she offers in this section “seeks to display/acknowledge its own implication in the effects of assimilation while simultaneously revealing those ideologies that underpin the assimilative program as it operates to this day” (italics mine). Howard invests, both in the poems and in her description of the poems, in confronting her texts’ implication in the legacy of colonization. She suggests that her anti-colonial project is also part of “what we are offered in lieu of a soul.”
The sweeping, historical lens in “Of Hereafter Song” is followed by poems that tell a more personal story of the assimilative tentacles’ stranglehold. In “Psycheogeography,” the speaker goes to Toronto for university:
before I left Chapleau
for the city, which vets me
and by its shadows
a false shore above the original
dearest ones please know
I’ll do my best not to die young
An attempt to succeed and thrive in the New World—necessarily a journey to a large city to partake in an assimilative education—could mean death for the Indigenous self. Isolation in the city could also lead to literal death, as the female speaker may either succumb to the melancholy of loneliness and erasure and commit suicide, or she may be preyed upon and numbered among the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women who are vulnerable to predators sheltered within a racist, capitalist system.
The speaker assures her family that she’ll do her best not to die. Voices in Infinite Citizen seem to forge this survival by relying on an internalized dialectic and an ability to exist in two worlds at once. This liminality can be painful, as an epigraph from Gail Scott details: “Is not the hybrid a melancholic? On a line between / appearing + disappearing?” But Howard’s poems also harness her sense of humour and her ferocity:
and I will be as loud
as I need to
in the middle
of mere existence
in the throes
This is the energy released at the fusing of the “once irreconcilable.” The metaphysical questions at the centre of the book are heavy, but sometimes the speakers overcome melancholia with a good laugh and a show of teeth.
Through their lucidity and their fierceness, the poems in Infinite Citizen embody a survival earned via adaptation and mutation—the settler no longer controls the story, and the education he used as a form of oppression and assimilation has the radical potential to combine and re-combine with other forms of knowing to allow for something restorative, supple, and irrepressible. Howard metamorphoses the colonizer’s tools and wields his words toward her poems’ own becoming. The hybridity of her speakers’ eloquence and erudition—their multilingualism, their multivocality, their multiple ways of knowing—form a braided resilience. And, although Howard’s poems dwell on the disturbing achievements of colonization, industrialization, and capitalism, they also demonstrate the strength of plurality to oppose these systems of power, to build something new from within. A body formed at the nexus of once-irreconcilable identities seeks to harmonize disparate parts:
relations splitting cedar planks
for the sauna is about my
inheritance of base pairs
toward the substance
of some arrival
In Infinite Citizen, arrival feels like return. Poems in its final section are re-visitation of words from the first pages—only they are unfamiliar, filtered, altered. Howard doesn’t provide an answer to whether this is “an indigenous or occidental dream,” so readers are left with everything and nothing, with silence and with an unsettl(er)ing anti-colonial keening that powerfully undermines the noble citizenship that inscribes Western identity and justifies settler entitlement. The poems serve as selves within selves, containing relics, or ghosts. Titles recur, fragments recur, and the book itself occurs as if all at once, an object lesson in existential survival, on inhabiting the infinite.
Brecken Hancock’s poetry, essays, interviews, and reviews have been published or are forthcoming in Best Canadian Poetry in English, Best American Experimental Writing, Papirmass, Lemon Hound, The Globe & Mail, Hazlitt, and on the site Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Her first book of poems, Broom Broom (Coach House, 2014), won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, was named by The Globe & Mail's Jared Bland as a debut of the year, and appeared on a number of year-end best-book lists, including the National Post, All Lit Up, and BookThug’s Best Reads. She lives in Ottawa.