“With the stories and the strength of our ancestors, we can find our home in the river again.”
These are among the introductory words of Neal McLeod, a writer, visual artist, film-maker, comedian, and professor at Trent University in Peterborough, ON, and in his poetry collection Gabriel’s Beach, we find some of the stories and individuals this champion of Cree and Métis culture pays homage to.
The “Gabriel” of the title is the poet’s mosôm (grandfather), a respected soldier who fought at Juno Beach, “where thunder met\the water,” and one of the many ancestors from whom the poet draws strength during his own personal battles. McLeod thanks Gabriel for “teaching us that that fire of the beach helps us to survive and keeps us from surrender,” but admits that in his own life, he has been a “son of a lost river, unable to hold the fire of Gabriel’s beach.”
The book’s first section is a mostly serious tribute to Gabriel and others, and it relays some of the war horrors Gabriel and fellow soldiers experienced: “hunger made them crazy\stomachs empty\vessels without holding\they think wîhtikow thoughts\eat their own excrement”. McLeod delivers a sharp contrast between the battleground and the life Gabriel left in Canada, as we see in this contrast: mosôm Gab welded “metal from bulldozers\patched together\like rainbow nôhkom’s quilt”.
We also meet another side of the book’s hero. In “Mosôm Gabriel’s Fight,” one of the strongest pieces, Gabriel and another man spar in Debden, SK. McLeod writes of “the other guy”: “he was like a man\running for chief\with no close relatives”.
Ah, humour. McLeod’s at his best when he’s funny, and he often is. He introduces us to “Mosôm John R. McLeod,” who “always wore his pants up high” and whose “Indian Affairs heavy glasses\would today be strangely trendy,” and to “wîhtikôhkân,” who ran from the church when his prearranged wife-to-be “took down her veil” and he discovered “she was made poorly.” In the entertaining “Thank You Mr. Brad Pitt,” the actor’s saluted for getting the narrator’s lover “hot\like a Coleman stove\at a powwow.” McLeod writes that Pitt “butter[s] her bannock\bingo card ready.”
Special attention’s paid to grandmothers and other female elders who pass on the stories that “give our bodies shape\and guide the path of sound\like trees guiding the wind.” Of “Cîhcam,” the mother of Gabriel, the poet writes “her body was our blanket\gave us life and language\brought stars from the sky”.
McLeod’s stories include the legend of chief Digging Weasel, and Buffalo Child, who was sheltered by a buffalo that later turned to stone. We learn about the importance of names, dreams, and trees.
Gabriel’s Beach is a political book – there are poems about “Indian mafia\like the Taliban,” and McLeod shines a spotlight on racism in “Spring Time in Kinistino,” but its seriousness is balanced by poems including “Tribute to Bob Barker,” and “Casino Culture,” where “Vegas meets neechiness.”
McLeod claims that he does not “hold the fire of Gabriel’s beach with grace”. This book proves otherwise.
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