Grounded Poets – Josephine Bacon
Last year at the Edinburgh Book Festival I heard three Innu poets read, powerful, compelling poems about the relationships of the Innu and their homeland, and the way the western culture distorts and oppresses both earth and people. (More about this event here) I’m not sure they would approve of that distinction I just made, and perhaps the necessity I feel to make it tells you all you need to know about the way we live. I bought Josephine Bacon’s book Message Sticks (Tshissinuatshitakana). Its poems are spare, short, incisive and beautiful, and come from a sense of identity with home, people and culture which gives her work authority. The poem that moves me most is this.
Someone seems to be calling me
to the woods,
there, in the back country,
It’s been so long
since I saw the Innu
pass by on sleds,
he seems to be saying.——
Where have the Innu gone?
apu petuk teueikan,
eku nekanat Innuat?
I wondered if Sutherland is longing for all the people who were dispossessed during the clearances. (A quick google search reveals the names of the Duchess who did it and her bailiff, but not the names of the people she evicted, which I think is significant.) There are many issues which come to mind about land ownership and usage and the way we fail to pay attention to people we regard as ‘the poor’, and all that stuff, and we may have to get to it, but the big can of worms I want to open here is ‘indigenous’.
There is a big easy trap attached to this concept – the one that says only people that were born here have any rights; the one that won’t allow ‘outsiders’ to come here; the one that assumes no-one outside your chosen has anything to offer your superior culture. I should start by saying I am having no truck whatever with this one. As will be fairly obvious from my bio page, I don’t live where I was born, and I wasn’t born where my ancestors lived. I am a person of the Irish diaspora, and that discontinuity has shaped my life, my personality and my poetry. My relationship with Scotland is one of allegiance, rather than identity, and so far it seems to be working well for all sides.
This seems to be something that Scotland does with a singular grace. A story I like is that you will often be told that Glen Affric is the ‘second most beautiful Glen in Scotland’. And if you ask which is the first, you will be told that it’s your own. In Scotland it is understood that to live in, and belong to, a place does not challenge your primal relationship with the place where your roots are. And that primal relationship does not prevent you living in and becoming genuinely and appropriately involved with somewhere new. in fact, I realised, when I wrote Visiting the Dunbrody Famine Ship, you can’t actually settle in a new place if you haven’t a clear sense of where your roots are.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this since the referendum, because it was only in England that people were talking about frontiers and passports and border guards. In Scotland we were talking about a better, more mature relationship with our neighbours, and stronger connections with more of them. It seems that in England questions of identity and nationhood are expressed in terms of ownership and control, while here it’s connection and relationship. I relate this ( in one vast over-simplification) to the feudal system, whereby William the Conqueror gained England by force of conquest, and kept order by relating grants of land to military service, whereas in other places land and law were communally held by tribes, and administered by personal loyalties. One consequence of the English system is that peasants were tied to the land, and could only be free if they went to a town and managed to live there for a year; I don’t think this opposition of land and personal freedom has done industrialised cultures much good, but I don’t want to claim that one system is necessarily less abusive than another. I just want to look at the dynamic of migration and indigenous populations and the poetry that might come out of it.
Josephine Bacon’s poems have a vision of a place where identity is expressed as a conversation between the land and the Innu people, between the stories and traditional knowledge of the past and the needs of the present, a relationship as strong as life itself:
If I don’t respect my land —-
If I keep silent
When they don’t respect
manenitamani nitassi —-
It’s a concept I use myself, in a poem called Land Speaks, and here in Walking the Territory;
In this place I write
the dialogue we hold with the earth,
a continuous exchange
of love and fruitfulness,
almost, never quite, unconscious,
the landscape of home.
But Bacon’s unity of place and people is much more dynamic and powerful. To be ‘indigenous’ might be to participate as one voice in this three way conversation between individual, landscape and community. You can do that, even if you were born somewhere else – and perhaps the quality of attention to the conversation already in place should be the criterion by which we judge grounded poetry?