Blue Marrow, White Page: White Space in Indigenous Poetry

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Almost halfway through the Coteau edition of Louise Bernice Halfe’s Blue Marrow, right before the narrator delves into her Métis history, the text is interrupted by a blank, white page (what would be page 66). At first, the page reads as an error, something that went wrong on the printing room floor. It doesn’t seem to be a placeholder; there are no chapter breaks in this long poem, and none of the other events are separated by page breaks or any kind. To add to the mystery further, the blank page also doesn’t appear in the original (McClelland & Stewart) edition, making it seem even more like a printing error. However, rather than just skipping past the page, writing it off as a mistake, and thus of no semiotic consequence, it is fruitful to think of what the blank page might mean in terms of Halfe’s poetics and the message of Blue Marrow itself. This is a poem after all and form and formatting are essential parts of its communiqué–everything within the covers should be open to interpretation, and nothing should be described away as an aberration. According to Gary Lehmann, “however white space is used, it is not simply the unused portion of a page of poetry. It is an active ingredient in poetic communication. Poets have the freedom, largely denied to prose writers, to redefine the rules of language in an effort to express the subtle thoughts that poetry attempts to convey. White space should be a vital part of every poet’s vocabulary.”

One possible reading of this anomalous sheet of white in Blue Marrow is that it is indicative of the silence that threatens the text throughout. This is a poem about the violence committed against Indigenous peoples in Canada during colonization, a topic which has been historically repressed and continues to be actively denied. According to Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, “new nations are born from the spilling of blood of other nations a fact that must be denied if a nation is to see itself as ethical.” See for instance, Stephen Harper’s insistence at the G20 that Canada “has no history of colonialism”. Halfe contends with the weight of this denial throughout her work. It weighs on her words and threatens the clarity of thoughts. Elsewhere in Blue Marrow she writes, “this chosen walk is a blizzard whiteout / My Creeing alone in the heavy arm of snow” (15). For the narrator (also a poet), the “chosen walk” being described here represents the path that she has taken up as a conduit of Indigenous history and colonial violence. The blizzard whiteout thus becomes a symbol of the oppressive white culture that works to isolate, dampen and even smoother Indigenous voice as it attempts to render appreciable a call for justice . In this sense, the white page can be read as a textual manifestation of that “whiteout,” a formal interruption of the Cree-ing Halfe herself is doing in the literary canon.

The ever-encroaching threat of silence, a direct product of colonialism and residential schools, is an omnipresent theme throughout Halfe’s work, manifesting in both the content and form of her poetry. In the poem “pâhkahkos,” first published in 1990, Halfe’s narrator attempts to come to terms with the past by giving language to the unnamed and veiled trauma that haunts her existence:

Flying Skeleton
I used to wonder where
You kept yourself.
I’d hear you rattle about
Scraping your bones

I opened a door
You grinned at me
Your hollow mouth
Stared through my heart
With empty eyes.

You lifted your boney hands
To greet me and I
Ran without a tongue (13).

As Halfe describes in the footnote that accompanied the original publication of this poem, pâhkahkos, “is a paradox. She forces us to look within and confront and resolve our skeletons, the past that burdens and hardens our lives. To ignore her appearance is to run from our own frightful personal lives.”[1] In the passage quoted above, Halfe’s narrator testifies to the silence that pâhkahkos carries with her: a testament to trauma, she is hidden, obscured, but that does not mean her presence is not felt. And while confronting one’s skeletons is, as Halfe articulates, part of the process of healing, finding the strength and the language to actualize that confrontation, is often beyond the survivor’s capacity. Indeed, upon encountering the figure here, the narrator “[runs] without a tongue”—stripped of voice, although even more acutely aware of the need to evoke the past. In this sense, pâhkahkos, as paradox, becomes a means of articulating the silence around which the language and poetics of Halfe’s narrators circulate. Or, to put it differently, pâhkahkos traces that which refuses representation, but which simultaneously demands to be articulated. True to her nature, pâhkahkos, both literally and figuratively, thus finds her way into nearly all of Halfe’s work: “none/ escape[…] pâhkahkos,” she writes in The Crooked Good—her voice, her paradox—forms a centre from which the narrators and characters of these poems must locate themselves.

According to Quill and Quire, Blue Marrow is an “impassioned critique of the historical and contemporary sufferings Aboriginal people have endured.” The long poem has been labelled a “quest for voice” by Laura Ann Cramner, and Warren Cariou identifies it as a type of ritual, a call to justice and redress with emphasis “on the necessity of present action”. As Cook-Lynn illustrates, historically, however, particularly in colonial states that want to project themselves as benign, friendly entities, stories that bring to light the trauma and bloodshed of colonization are quickly quashed, or given limited space to be heard. Thus, while Blue Marrow works to enter stories of historical violence against Indigenous people into the public discourse, illustrating, sometimes in graphic detail, the ways in which her ancestors were poisoned, raped and murdered in the name of colonialism, testifying to this history is a difficult and laborious task. Indeed, at points the narrator admits that the words “hardly get passed my throat” (15) and those voices she draws on must speak through “blistered tongues” (18).

As such, the blank page in Blue Marrow can be read as a representation of the colonial silence that threatens the text throughout—and is only kept at bay by the persistence and strength of its narrators. It is a moment, if only a brief one, in which the pressure of silence is too much even for the strongest speaker and it slips in between the covers of the text to make itself purposefully felt, before, of course, being beaten back to once again crouch in waiting at its corners. The fact that the blank page finds its way into the second edition and not the first draws is indicative of the similar ways in which silence continues to bleed into Halfe’s work as a poet, despite her best efforts to keep it at bay. Contrary to a progressivist, “post-racial” interpretation of history, in which liberal society is gradually correcting the wrongs of history and coming towards a general acceptance and understanding of one another, the white page in this text gestures towards the silence that continues to impinge on the narratives that expose the violence of colonial history–even after they have been registered as part of the national fabric. It is a performative moment. A small instance when the text is able to embody the silence it works against. Reading the white page as a part of Halfe’s narrative, rather than disregarding it as a publishing error, is thus an acknowlegement of the intensity of the colonial project that the poet is working against. It is a moment to consider all of the silence, and all of the blank pages that settler colonialism has imprinted on our history.

2 comments

  1. […] Bernice Halfe have also used the idea “welcome” to unpack early settler/Indigenous relations (Blue Marrow). As Gideon Baker puts it “reflection on hospitality furthers our understanding of the place of […]

  2. […] the Milton Acorn People’s Poet Award. I have been reading and writing about Halfe’s work, particularly Blue Marrow, since 2005 and, in terms of poetic methodology and storytelling, I regard her as one […]

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