Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer

Josephine Bacon

  • Grounded Poets – Josephine Bacon

    innue_poet_josephine_bacon-dominique_godrecheLast 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,
    our 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?

    tshetshi kushpian
    nete nutshimit
    nitassinat —-

    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:

    Kill me
    If I don’t respect my land —-

    If I keep silent
    When they don’t respect
    my people

    manenitamani nitassi —-

    eka tshituiani

    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,
    grounding, creating
    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?




  • Norland Wind

    The Violet Jacob poem Norland Wind (set so hauntingly to music by the singer Jim Reid in 1984) has been on my mind for the last three days, since the wonderful event I went to in the Edinburgh Book Festival. It was called Innu Poetry from the Canadian Tundra, and featured three Innu poets Josephine Bacon, Nataha Kanapé Fontaine and Naomi Fontaine reading from their work, with responses from Scottish poets Anna Crowe, JL Williams and Rachel McCrum. It was profound and thoughtful poetry, but I want to make special mention of Rachel McCrum’s poem Do Not Alight Here Again ( the title-poem of her latest pamphlet from Stewed Rhubarb), dealing with the pressure on Irish children to leave home:

    Get out.
    Leave while you can—

    Wander far
    Be better than us.

    Do not alight here again

    and Josephine Bacon’s Someone Seems to be Calling Me where the northland laments the loss of its inhabitants

    It’s been so long
    Since I heard
    the sound of the drum
    he seems to be saying.

    Where have the Innu gone?

    I have responded to the Irish Diaspora myself in several poems in Wherever We Live Now, and what surprised me most about that experience was that the longing for the homeland does seem to be mutual. When I tried to find my ancestors in Waterford, the staff in the library suggested that they might find long-lost cousins who would like to meet me, and at the Dunbrody, the famine ship in the harbour at New Ross, there is a record of every emigrant who left from every port, The Irish Emigration Database, between 1846 and 1890. I did get the eerie feeling that Ireland itself was asking ‘Where are the children? What happened to them? Do they remember me?’

    Violet Jacob’s poem reminds me that Scotland feels this too. It is not just a historical perspective. Naomi Fontaine writes in her poetic novel about white farmers who buy land, exclude the Innu from it and develop it for money. We have Donald Trump, building a golf course that excludes his neighbours from their own beach.

    So far so easy. But there is a twist in this tale. I’m working on a new poem – not got far, it’s still a bit raw and diagrammatic, and maybe it is too big and complicated a subject for a single poem anyway:

    Forbidden to own land,
    forbidden to teach our children,
    even to speak our own language,
    what else could we do but flee?

    And in that new place,
    we took what we wanted.
    No-one to hunt us or stop us.
    We did to the others
    what had been done to us.
    Our guilt is the greater.

    But I am thinking that the problem of our disconnection from nature, our longing for wildness, has many layers, and not all of them comfortable.


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