Shapeshifting Realities in Louise Halfe’s awâsis – kinky and disheveled

The painting on the cover of Louise Halfe’s latest poetry collection, awâsis – kinky and disheveled, is jarring at first glance: An Indigenous person with electrifying hair, a fox’s tail, one muscular arm draped with white fur and a pair of serpents, and the other in a pink dress next to a protruding breast. This character is the namesake of the collection, awâsis, which means child in Ininiw, but the literal translation of this word is being lent to a spiritual being. As Halfe’s opening poem explains, awâsis is a relative of Wîsahkêcâhk—a trickster figure in Cree legend. Like Wîsahkêcâhk, awâsis is a genderbending shapeshifter who lives through story, and Halfe is the written witness. She indicates in her acknowledgements that this collection was inspired by numerous Cree storytellers from a variety of communities and is meant to honor the tradition of oral storytelling, as well as the inner-child that adults seem to lose touch with as they age. awâsis is also an examination of the English language and the colonial borders of gender, and plays with these through awâsis’ constantly switching pronouns.

The collection opens with a poem from the speaker’s perspective. “I like the way awâsis’s âcimowinis, story darts / up and down my bones” they say, and awâsis nearly bounces from the page, shapeshifting from coyote to weasel to wind in this piece (11). awâsis’s gender, human/animal form and the setting change with each subsequent poem, and the speaker has no qualms about the shapeless structure of awâsis’s story, noting: “Who am I, the otâcimow, storyteller to dictate / his thoughts, his actions? / I just do what I’m told” (13). The reader is then able to enjoy awâsis’s adventures as they morph with every poem, travelling from across the rez to around the world.

In her acknowledgements of the collection, Halfe writes that she is unapologetic if awâsis’s interchangeable pronouns confuses readers. In the poem “otâcimow – The Storyteller,” the speaker says: “awâsis, awâsis. I’ve heard / the settler is confused / about your shape-shifting / You can’t decide / if you’re an animal or a human / if you are a he or a she” (11). It can be surprising, as a reader, to find awâsis in one poem as a man cutting his face on a razor and with a pregnant stomach in the next. The thesis statement of the collection lies in the poem “Remember When,” which closes with: “In nêhiyaw, Cree country, when people speak / of a man or woman / they know that spirit / is neither and is all” (18). This statement can also be true for things beyond the gender binary. It reminds me of something I heard the two-spirit elder Barbara Bruce say at a Manitoba two-spirit gathering a few years ago. Bruce explained that the divide between genders is much like the assumed dichotomy between good and evil within humanity and nature—it is self-imposed and constricts real-life experience. awâsis is a melting pot of dichotomies.

The shapeshifting nature of each poem in awâsis embeds the reader in a web of wild and urban settings, from a forest resembling a pregnant woman’s body to Salvation Army and the portage of a lake. awâsis’s transformations into various animals and other non-human forms in these settings further remind us that humanity is not detached from nature. While we cannot literally morph into bears or lightning strikes, awâsis is a reminder that we can and often do resemble their characteristics in our own ways.

In the poem “One in a Thousand,” it is said that awâsis would “lazily pick something off the ground / and wear whatever she’d decided to be that day” (26). The speaker remarks a few times that they are envious yet love awâsis for their ability to walk through the world with child-like joy—that could even be madness. And it is evident throughout the collection that awâsis moves with an air of freedom difficult to embody: “She’s the woman wearing work boots / driving a transport loaded with fruit / going cross-country” (18). awâsis is Halfe at her best. It is a celebration of the Cree storytelling tradition, an ode to the trickster figure Wîsahkêcâhk, and a gift to Indigenous two-spirit and queer communities.

Works Cited

Halfe, Louise. awâsis – kinky and disheveled. eBook ed., Brick Books, 2021. 

Review by Özten Shebahkeget, a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation and an MFA candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. She grew up in Winnipeg’s North End and holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg. Her poetry has appeared recently in CV2Prairie Fire and The Winnipeg Free Press.

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