Lisa Bird-Wilson and Poesis: Making the Absent Present in The Red Files

The Red Files, Lisa Bird-Wilson’s 2016 poetry collection, deserves renewed attention for the honesty and grace with which it examines the truth of Indigenous intergenerational trauma and the healing possible in the course of reconciliation. The collection is artistically nuanced and skilful, and emotionally and psychologically complex. It continues to be relevant: socially, inviting our collective, on-going engagement in Canada’s truth and reconciliation process, and artistically, demonstrating poesis, the transformation of absence into presence.

Family snapshots of relatives who attended residential schools sparked the book’s concept, in the context of the cultural genocide residential schools perpetrated. Of individuals lost, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation reckons “the number of children identified by name, as well as unnamed in death records, is about 4,200” (Mussa CBC.ca). Black-and-white institutional photos appear on the book’s covers while images Bird-Wilson found in Ottawa’s General Synod Archives of the Anglican Church of Canada provide the collection’s frame.

The literary practice of ekphrasis has come to mean verbal reflections on visual art materials. However, Bird-Wilson’s use of the rhetorical device is also reminiscent of the original Greek. According to Ruth Webb, “To compose an ekphrasis is to tell (phrazo) in full (ek)” (Webb 13). Bird-Wilson does so, with a tonal range the material merits, from the poignant to the pejorative to the possible, while evoking the inherent difficulty caused by cultural erasure.

The title of The Red Files refers to the Canadian Government’s naming system for documents related to residential schools. While the tragedy’s nameless, numbered students are the primary focus of Part One, Parts Two and Three wide-angle the lens to encompass the Canadian Government’s systemic genocide from first contact annihilation and starvation policies as in “Daybird” (“white men / standing like sterile hunters / atop mountains / of bleached buffalo skulls”) to the deliberate undermining of Indigenous cultural continuity through and beyond residential schools, to the Sixties Scoop, to, despite the Apology, “this / thing that is still in the doing” (61, “The Apology” 56). 

The Red Files was nominated for the Saskatchewan Book Awards’ poetry category in 2017. Herself a child of the Sixties Scoop—a government scheme begun in the 60s that removes Indigenous children from their mothers for adoption into non-Indigenous homes—Lisa Bird-Wilson is an award-winning Métis and nêhiyaw writer of prose and poetry widely published in Canadian literary journals and anthologies. Her artistic and leadership contributions, particularly to the Ânskohk Aboriginal Writers’ Circle and the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Literacy Network, garnered her the Saskatchewan Arts Board’s 2018 RBC Emerging Artist Award. Bird-Wilson’s fourth book and debut novel, Probably Ruby, is forthcoming in August 2021 through Doubleday Canada.

The Red Files, her first book of poetry, features a voice that finely modulates and models being “glad for speaking the truth” and variously uses bilingualism—Cree words appear amid English in titles and text—and multiple poetic forms: free verse, prose poem, and, in one notable example of found poem form, erasure (“Hundreds of Boys—A Response” 45).

In “The XXXX’s Situation,” Bird-Wilson exposes the Government’s cover-up of a residential school’s travesty by adding quotes and lineation to an archival letter to the Superintendent of Education, Indian Affairs, effectively co-opting a censored and redacted Government document under the guise of poetic erasure (46).

Regardless of form, her poetics organically serve her subject’s stories and themes, making the absent present and the invisible seen. As in “Girl with the Short Hair,” (“it’s in her bones to lope under the prairie sky … / … / for miles in all directions                now this is more like it    there   she   is,   the breathless one       the one with the wind-knotted hair” 16), the prose poem enacts, in part through assonance and rhythm, the transformation that recognition of identity confers. In poems such as this, Bird-Wilson’s poetry embodies what specialist in Aboriginal literature and creative writing, Warren Cariou, envisions in the spirit of reconciliation: that the verbal quality inherent in the act of poetic creation, regardless of the origin of the term poesis, moves “across the lines of class and race and epistemology toward something more elemental in us all …” (Cariou 32). 

The Red Files is vibrant with metaphor, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, pun, irony, enjambment, and imagery like “against his antler-velvet skin” (“‘Within the Circle of Civilized Conditions’” 29). In Bird-Wilson’s hands, these devices convey the tension between cultural invisibility and visibility, absence and presence, and the dignity of agency, love, spirit, voice. She even applies poetics to punctuation.

When rare punctuation is used, it emphasizes declarative colonial entitlement. For example, the sentence, “Saturday is his day to take / a boy.” opens “The Finest in the Dominion” (26). Enacting absence, many poems have no end-line (except the occasional em-dash) and no final punctuation, perhaps mirroring the continuing ramifications of cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma. In “The Apology,” for example, “the story endures— / a sucking wound” (57).

The collection’s launch occurred just after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final December 2015 report with its ninety-four Calls to Action, including the Canadian Government’s still un-adopted UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

One achievement of The Red Files is that it dares to make palpable not only truths of the traumas Indigenous peoples experienced from genocide and attempted genocide, but it conveys the vulnerability of Bird-Wilson’s own questioning around the process of reconciliation. The collection continues to invite readers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to experience parallel journeys. In “Sweep,” one of the final poems, the speaker says, “I have to live with the memory: …/ and the question/ what does it mean to be full of grace/ … and make things out of your hands” (75).

Works Cited:

Bird-Wilson, Lisa. The Red Files. Nightwood Editions, 2016.

Cariou, Warren. “Edgework: Indigenous Poetics as Re- Placement.” Indigenous Poetics in Canada, edited by Neal McLeod, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014. 

Mussa, Idil. “Remembering Children Who Died at Residential Schools,” CBC News, 30 Sept. 2019, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/remembering-children-who-died-at-residential-school-1.5302955.

Webb, Ruth. “Ekphrasis Ancient and Modern: The Invention of a Genre.” Word & Image, vol. 15, no. 1, Jan. 1999, pp. 7–18. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1080/02666286.1999.10443970.

Susie Hammond is an emerging Seattle-based Canadian poet, and University of Saskatchewan MFA in Writing 2020 graduate. She is the 2019-2020 Edney Masters Scholar for International Understanding Through the Humanities and Fine Arts, with residencies from The Banff Centre, Catalonia’s Faber, and France’s Musée National de Préhistoire. She’s an editor, youth mentor, Community of Writers poetry alum, and Yes!
Poetry
’s October 2020 Poet of the Month.

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