river woman is Katherena Vermette’s second book of poetry. Her first, North End Love Songs won the Governor General’s Award for poetry. Her novel, The Break won a bunch of awards and is my current answer to the dreaded-question-with-no-answer: what’s your favourite book? Vermette has also written a collection of children’s picture books, a graphic novel for young adults, and produced a National Film Board documentary about volunteers who dragged the Red River looking for missing Indigenous people. Her medium is fluid but the themes in her art stay the same: home, love, and Métis culture; everything fighting against itself to thrive.
At a public reading Vermette said she set out to write a book of love poems but failed because love is hard and her love poetry was quickly tainted. I don’t think she failed. river woman is divided into three parts, and the first section, “black river” is definitely love poetry:
I know you so well
I don’t know you at all
you are only the songs I hum
when no one is near
a story I can recite
but don’t understand
We read about two people who make each other whole, who stir up ghosts and lose track of their love, who find connection through the Anishnaabemowin language they’re trying to learn, who practice how to argue without falling out of love.
The second section, “red river” turns its gaze to the land, personifying rivers and drawing links between strong brown waters and the strong Métis women who’ve travelled upon them. These poems are layered with insight and beauty.
The third section, “an other story” includes older stories of Métis leaders and colonization, but doesn’t abandon the present space nor the land and the rivers. A lazy reader would call this the “political” section, but as the opening epigraph from Chrystos argues, “I assert that poetry without politics is narcissistic and not useful to us. I also believe that everything is political–there is no neutral safe place we can hide out in waiting for the brutality to go away,” and an informed reader will see the politics in all three sections of poetry, in every bend in the river.
This book is less sad than North End Love Songs but no less powerful. Like its cover artwork Red River 1870s (beaded map) by David Garneau , which beautifully depicts the past and the future, honouring nature and history while innovating and expressing a personal vision, river woman shows us how to hold multiple truths. Like a river that changes colour along its course, that narrows and angers, that widens and calms, but always carries the same name, these poems touch markers all over the map while maintaining connectivity. So many poems have been written about the ocean; here, finally, is an ode to the prairie river.
(Photo: Amy Attas)