To All the Residential School Survivors, Dedicated to Mechelle Pierre, by Wanda John-Kehewin
To all the children of residential schools…
I hope your life is filled with love
from here on earth and from above.
I hope you can overcome your fears
through family, friends and many healing tears.
I hope you can find your way back home
where you feel most safe, anywhere you choose
just as long as you can be yourself
to laugh without shame and let go of pain.
I hope you can see the Creator’s plan for you
because you’re still here and learning to love
and sharing your knowledge can bring about change
and a chance to set things right in your heart.
I hope you smile at the little things and pause
and reflect on how much time was needed to bring it forth
because even a flower had to be planted in manure
to blossom into a resilient flower who one day will dissolve back
into the earth but until then, share the beauty and wealth of healing
which is a continuous cycle just like the earth and all her creatures.
Bring forth new smiles, new loves and new lives and reinvent old ways
to give a child the will and strength to push forth into new territory
where it doesn’t hurt to be a child and it doesn’t hurt to laugh
and there’s no shame in being happy and there’s no way to break their hearts,
And it’s ok to be proud because you have taught them how special they
Are to you and to the Creator…*
I hope you know just how strong you are,
Just how resilient,
Just how beautiful,
Just how knowledgeable,
Just how amazing you are to pull forth
your wings to fly again,
to see beauty in the ugliness
because without the pain of yesterday,
You wouldn’t be who you are today…
A teacher, a survivor, a lover of life,
And the keeper of stories of awful days
QUOTES OF NOTE
“Her work is brave, brilliant, and relentless. Her voice deserves to be heard.”
– Garry Gottfriedson
“Playful, painful, indignant, compassionate, a new voice emerges into the realms of Canadian poetry. Wanda John-Kehewin is a smart, sharp observer, and an articulate craftswoman. Her poetry shines.”
– Joanne Arnott
"Seven Sacred Truths by Wanda John-Kehewin, Talonbooks, 2019
This second collection from Vancouver-based Cree/Métis poet Wanda John-Kehewin returns to a place of witness that psychologically complements her debut, In the Dog House (Talonbooks, 2013). That collection featured discrete poems, while this one laces prose, experimental poems, testimony, acrostic, prayer, poems of witness, essay, memoir and recollection. In terms of grappling with the who am Iand what are my concerns, questions emerging authors tend to answer in their first books, Seven Sacred Truths collects the author’s learning and places it right on the page, beautifully, confidently, and with the type of stare-you-in-the-face storytelling that can only be accomplished with the wisdom of self-awareness. These texts do not dress up or pretend. What is more sacred than a woman knowing herself, accepting herself and moving forward into a place of self-determination?
One thread of poems about family displacement, abuse and residential schools manipulates typography to capitalize the letters of certain words as they appear individually in the poem; “mommy” is one used a few times, another “dad,” and yet another, “no.” At first the atypical font looked wacky and I had trouble reading, getting frustrated, tempted to skip through the poem.
i wOuld have washed
YOur hair with
and cedar water.
—MOMMY i wOuld have.
But as I recognized the code and saw how the absence of a mother, or rather, her skewed presence, is woven through every moment of John-Kehewin’s life, I stopped fighting. I slowed down to work through the lines because I owed it to the narrative. Reading it was hard, both visually and emotionally. Why should my reading of a troubling, unjust story be fast, smooth and easy? The author’s method was deeply affecting, a meta-gesture towards the pain the author recalls in her clear, retrospective pieces.
In her essay, “An ‘Indian’ Never Dies Peacefully,” she relates the circumstances of several suicides around her as a child. It’s an accumulation that is unbearable precisely because of the balance of prose, which itself is very simple. John-Kehewin draws the connections between colonialism’s cultural and physical genocides and her reasons for writing this book with frankness:
I can still hear the grass dancing in the wind through the open window and feel the slight coolness of the breeze that entered our dark basement suite. He had hung himself with a belt in a white closet from a solid wood dowel. I remember those dowels and how thick and strong things were made in the old days, I know because I would hang from the same dowel Jimmy would eventually see as a solution to his pain and sadness.
Seven Sacred Truths is a prayer, literally. It opens with prose poem prayers to the Creator, the Universe and Ancestors. These meditations are method for surviving and moving onwards to repair epigenetic ruptures with the next generation. This type of healing is never complete, she warns, but it can become a way of life. Seven Sacred Truths uses poetry as just one of its vehicles for moving forward. John-Kehewin offers her own experience as another, reminding the reader that each person has their own truth to reconcile."
Elee Kralji-Gardiner, Prism Magazine
However, in a contemporary setting, the magniloquent narrative of nation-building has given way to fragmentary and reflexive self- examination that is inextricably bound to a history of colonization, the residual effects of which are buried deep within silent sufferers. Divided into four aspects of the Medicine Wheel – one of many stone structures scattered across the Alberta Plains – this collection calls for us to acknowledge the blatant neglect of quality of life on Native reserves and to explore ameliorative processes of restorative justice.