How is Billy-Ray Belcourt. How? I picture him pulled from a bubbling golden pond of primordial goo, body fully-formed, mind sharp—sharper than any of us—bashful and steadfast. Billy-Ray Belcourt is a child prodigy. Billy-Ray Belcourt is a hunk. Billy-Ray Belcourt is a sad, sad queer. Billy-Ray Belcourt is a line in a poem. His poem.
His first book of poetry, This Wound Is a World, made him the youngest-ever winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize. His brilliant academic brain took him to Oxford, as the first-ever Indigenous Rhodes Scholar. His second book of poetry, NDN Coping Mechanisms, charges forward, stays vulnerable, and engages with the political, the historical, and the dark rooms of the heart.
This Wound is a World is devastating. It’s about a boy who yearns to be loved, who is heartbroken and torn apart by the many ways he doesn’t live up to society’s expectations. He is queer, he is brown, he is a modern Indigenous man in a world that wants to keep those people in the past. Dead. Belcourt tears at these expectations, mourns them, cradles them, wallows in sadness. But he comes out alive, and that is a triumph.
NDN Coping Mechanisms reads like a walk around an art gallery, each poem an expression in a different medium, engaging with what it means to be Indigenous in Canada in a slightly different way. My favourite is the Erasure poem “Treaty 8,” which Belcourt describes as a kind of “linguistic archaeology.” He takes the actual text of Treaty 8, an agreement between Queen Victoria and First Nations of the Lesser Slave Lake area, and blacks most of it out, unearthing the voices of his ancestors. It was, for me, a powerful metaphor for the ways we settlers have papered our version of events on top of the existing stories of Indigenous nations. We wrote the treaty, and thanks to colonialism, that is the only written description of those times that exists today. But the historical Indigenous voices are still there, fighting through the lines of the English-language treaty, and Belcourt has dusted them off for us like buried artefacts.
Other poems are more fun, like the one which reimagines the Hollywood film The Revenant if Leonardo DiCaprio was eaten by the bear. Or full of hope, like “I Become Less of Who I am by the Second:”
Boy becomes a 3-D printing of a man.
It is comforting to think of my gender as a farmer’s field
Already rototilled, already tidied up.
I become less of who I am by the second.
Look at the branches growing from my teeth!
Then there’s the doe, tipsy on me,
grazing to no end.
How profound, and yet fully relatable, to think of gender as a field, full of growth, change, and symbiosis. If a man is an oak, we must remember that the oak was once a green seedling. Was once an acorn. And is still those things, and more.