Living Close to the Bone

By Woodhouse, Jena | Hecate, November 30, 1988 | Go to article overview

Living Close to the Bone


Woodhouse, Jena, Hecate


A Review of Chrystos Not Vanishing (Vancouver: Press Gang, 1988); Wanda Coleman Heavy Daughter Blues (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow, 1987); Bobbi Sykes Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Actions (Reissued, Univ. of Queensland Press, 1988).

Apart from gender, what Chrystos, Wanda Coleman and Bobbi Sykes have in common is that each speaks in some part of her work as a representative of an indigenous people displaced or dispossessed by European colonising activity (in this case British); and each speaks also as a survivor and as a resister of attempts, continuing into the present, to marginalise her people and her culture. The title of Chrystos's book, Not Vanishing, is a refutation of the assumption that her people -- the Native inhabitants of North America in what is now Canada -- are "vanishing": an attitude and implied wish also found historically in the white Australian dominant ideology.

The question of identity, crucial to all writers, is dramatised for these women by the continuing threat to the survival of their collective cultures, with inevitable implications for the individual. An acute consciousness of what is at stake pervades the work of all three. They are aware not only of the wish shared by the respective white supremacist cultures, and implicitly expressed in assertions that the Native peoples of Australia and North America "are vanishing"; but also of the concomitant refusal to acknowledge the presence of their peoples.

Chrystos's poem, "Savage Eloquence", is an impassioned cry of grief and defiance, mystical and real. In it she articulates her sense of a collective identity, and her outrage at the ways in which that identity and its cultural heritage have been, and are being, violated.

Big Mountain

you old story you old

thing you fighting over nothing everything

how they work us

against one another They mean to kill us

all Vanishing is no joke they mean it

We don't fit this machine they've made instead of life We breathe

spirit softness of dirt between our toes No metaphors

Mountains ARE our mothers Stars our dead

They are Still

saying they know

what is best for us

they who know nothing

their white papers decisions empty eyes laws rules stone fences

time cut apart with dots

killing animals to hang their heads on walls

We cannot make sense of this

It has nothing everything

to do with us

Wanda Coleman, a Black American writer living in Los Angeles, expresses similar outrage at similar injustices. (Like Chrystos in Not Vanishing, Coleman in Heavy Daughter Blues intersperses poetry with prose pieces.)

You think you can keep away from me, don't you?

I'm present even when you refuse to see me. Even when you can't see me. There's no need for me to pursue you. I'll be with you by-and-by. I've no choice and neither do you even though you stubbornly think otherwise. It's so sad you've yet to concede. You can't destroy me without destroying yourself. That kind of resignation would make life such as it is so much better for all.

Including you. So much saner.

I plague you. I cause you guilt. You are frightened I might steal your peace of mind or spirit away your progeny. I might overwhelm and displace you. I might engulf you as an extension of that grimly ultimate darkness.

You worry about my uniting with other shadows.

("From a Shadow")

Like Wanda Coleman, the Australian Aboriginal writer, Bobbi Sykes, sometimes borrows from the rhythms and idiom of the street to give an effect of accessibility and immediacy. In the poem, "Racism/Many Faces" (also published in the last issue of Hecate), Sykes ironically reports a critical reaction to one of her poems:

I read one of your poems

About women,

I thought it very good

But

It didn't say that you

were BLACK.

Now I meet you and

see that you

are BLACK

I wonder

Why you wrote the poem? …

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