Belcourt’s inaugural poetry collection, This World is a Wound, which won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize, is a profound and probing explication of (non)existence for queer Indigenous bodies in the violent wake of settler colonialism: “colonialism broke us,” Belcourt writes in this collection, “and we’re still trying to figure out how to love and / be broken at the same time.”[i] These poems are not about reconciliation — the word never comes up in any of the thirty-seven poems — but they are about the struggle to love and be loved in a world that refuses the existence of queer Indigenous bodies.
Loneliness as a Community-Building Tool
As the above quotation alludes to, Belcourt’s poetry works towards a being-together that is, in many ways, antithetical to the language of harmony and wholeness that pervades reconciliation discourse. In the book’s epilogue, Belcourt follows Ann Cvetkovich and Karin Michalski’s question, “is it possible to share the feeling of being lonely or alone as a way to make new forms of collectivity?” from The Alphabet of Feeling Bad, with his answer: “This Wound is a World insists that it is.
It insists that loneliness is endemic to the affective life of settler colonialism, but that it is also an affective commons of sorts that demonstrates that there is something about this world that isn’t quite right, that loneliness in fact evinces a new world on the horizon.”[ii]
Working against the popular discourse of reconciliation, This Wound is a World offers an affective horizon attuned to the depression, alienation, and tears inflicted by settler colonialism and imagines a future in which those truths are not reconciled away, but remain productively, if not painfully, constitutive.
This is a far cry from the Christian model of suffering and forgiveness propagated by Tutu and the TRC model that unfolds around him. It is a model of being “unbodied” and, in being unbodied, finding oneself in radical relation with the other.[iii]
“If I have a body, let it be a book of sad poems“
This critical theme is evidenced again and again in poems throughout Belcourt’s collection. For instance, in “If I Have a Body, Let it be a Book of Sad Poems,” he writes,
If I have a body, let it be a book of sad poems. i mean it. indigeneity
troubles the idea of “having” a body, so if i am somehow,
miraculously, bodied then my skin is a collage of meditations on love
and shattered selves.[iv]
In these lines, Belcourt points to the ways in which settler colonialism renders Indigenous bodies less than such, replacing history and human lives with stereotypes and Hollywood derivations of the “Indian.” In re-bodying himself as a book of sad poems, the narrator in this passage imagines a (re)unification of “selves” that collectivizes brokenness qua brokenness.
To build out of the psychoanalytic theory that Belcourt refers to in this same poem, the narrator of “If I Had a Body…” gestures towards a modality of being, and of being with others, as an articulation of lack. From a Lacanian perspective, coming to terms with lack, or brokenness, is crucial to understanding self. In her reading of Lacan, Michaela Driver argues that it is “by listening to ambiguities, tangents, omissions, contradictions and other failed rhetorical constructions, we hear how subjects are experiencing fundamental lack as a presence they continue to circle in their own unique and creative fashion.”[v]
And, while there is no cure for the condition of lack, in being attentive to it, in recognizing how it shapes human subjectivity, “we are freed momentarily from our illusions and the imaginary constructions that alienate us”, that promise us, falsely, harmony and wholeness.[vi] A theory of brokenness — a theory of lack — runs counter to the dominant discourse of reconciliation, which is variously defined as “providing a closure,”[vii] or as a “truth that heals rather than divides.”[viii]
Rather than looking towards wholeness and reconciliation, then, Belcourt’s poetry articulates a community of care built out of the world of the wound and the affective potentiality of brushing against being and non-being. While Belcourt’s poetry compels us to imagine a world beyond the prevalent rhetoric and ideology of reconciliation, while it invites readers to imagine “this wound [as] a world,” it is not an invitation for settler scholars to unearth, explore, and “discover” Indigenous pain and suffering.
“Irreconcilable spaces of Aboriginality”
Indeed, a large part of what makes Belcourt’s work antithetical to settler discourses of reconciliation, which imagine happy, harmonious relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, is that it adheres to what David Garneau names as “irreconcilable spaces of Aboriginality.”[ix] That is, “gatherings, ceremony, Cree-only discussions, kitchen-table conversations, email exchanges, etc. in which Blackfootness, Métisness, Indianness, Aboriginality, and/or Indigeneity is performed apart from a Settler audience.”[x] In which reconciliation, if we can call it that, is something produced only by and for Indigenous peoples.
The penultimate paragraph of Belcourt’s essay, “Fatal Naming Rituals,” which is addressed specifically to settler audiences, bluntly informs readers that, “you are not invited into our tent. We are not yet at that point of hospitality. I will not tell you when this time has come.”[xi] The role of the settler in this discourse — which is not a discourse of reconciliation — is to unsettle the authority with which we lay claim to the description of Indigenous peoples and to the description of colonial violence: “You need to read, to listen, and to write from someplace else,” Belcourt tells settlers in the same essay, “from another social locus, a less sovereign one, a less hungry one.”[xii]
For Belcourt, an author who undoubtedly “break[s] from colonial modes of storytelling,” reconciliation does little, if anything, to contribute to the complex and elaborate worlds he imagines and (re)builds.[xiii] And while white settlers so often turn to Indigenous authors and thinkers such as Richard Wagamese and Chief Robert Joseph, authors who speak powerfully — and importantly — about the power of reconciliation, it is equally necessary to turn to authors who imagine otherwise. Authors who, in the midst of the theatre of regret, work against the compulsive drive of reconciliation and its primary mandates.
If you loved This Wound is a World you should also read Belcourt’s second book of poetry NDN Coping Mechanisms
[i] Billy-Ray Belcourt, “Colonialism: A Love Story,” in This Wound is a World (Calgary, AB: Frontenac House, 2017), 27.
[ii] Belcourt, “Epilogue,” This Wound is a World, 59.
[iii] Ibid., 58.
[iv] Belcourt, “If I Have a Body, Let it be a Book of Sad Poems,” This Wound is a World, 22.
[v] Michaela Driver, “The Stressed Subject: Lack, Empowerment and Liberation,” Organization 21, 1 (2014): 93.
[vii] Mohammed Abu-Nimer, introduction to Reconciliation, Justice and Coexistence: Theory and Practice, ed. Mohammed Abu-Nimer (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001),3.
[viii] Donald W. Shriver Jr., “Truths for Reconciliation: an American Perspective,” Commons Learning Portal, National Park Service, updated April 4, 2017, https://mylearning.nps.gov/library-resources/truths-for-reconciliation-an-american-perspective/.
[ix] David Garneau, “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation: Art, Curation and Healing,” in Arts of Engagement: Taking Aesthetic Action in and Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, eds. Dylan Robinson and Keavy Martin (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015), 33.
[xi] Billy-Ray Belcourt, “Fatal Naming Rituals,” Hazlitt, July 19, 2018, https://hazlitt.net/feature/fatal-naming-rituals.
[xiii] Dimitri Nasrallah, “Leanne Betasamosake Simpson Redefines What It Means to be Indigenous in the 21st Century,” Quill & Quire, May 2017, https://quillandquire.com/authors/leanne-betasamosake-simpson-redefines-what-it-means-to-be-indigenous-in-the-21st-century/.