nipê wânîn

6 June 2017

nipê wânîn: my way back
by Mika Lafond
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00 ISBN 978-1-77187-129-7

In her first poetry collection, nipê wânîn: my way back, Saskatoon writer and U of S educator Mika Lafond pays homage to her Cree heritage, the landscape that nurtured her as a child, and various family members-with particular gratitude expressed for grandmothers and great grandmothers-in heartfelt and easy-to-read poems presented in both English and Cree. As the book’s title suggests, the poems tell a story of a woman’s “way back” to the lessons her ancestors taught to her in their quiet ways. Lafond writes: “Words are spoken in hushed voices/their sacredness not to be shouted.”

Lafond’s a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, and, with a strong interest in education and the arts, Lafond and her cousin (Joi Arcand) initiated Kimiwan Zine as a venue for Indigenous visual artists and writers. A few of the poems in this book hint at some of the heart-breaking situations she’s faced as a teacher and the difficult business of “[getting] through the walls” adolescent male students sometimes put up. One student is “always tired on cheque day” and though “winter is definitely here now-he still doesn’t have a jacket”.

The writer finds myriad connections between the natural and human worlds, ie: in the poem “elements,” she writes that “teardrop/is the same shape as rain,” and I was delighted to learn that in Cree, “fire” translates as “woman’s heart”. In “way back,” I appreciated how stars are considered to be “the ones who have gone before,” and this image (from that same poem) is terrific: “late at night they join hands-brilliant serpentine belt/in the northern sky/purple splashes on green-shawl upon skirt/great grandmothers”. This is a unique way of seeing.

I enjoyed the poems in the second section, “niya/Me,” where Lafond included more of the everyday details that make poetry come alive, ie: it’s satisfying to know that the song spilling from the red truck’s radio on a hot August day is “Big Yellow Taxi” – details like these make the work original and relatable – and I can hear the “constant patter against the plastic pail” while the poet and her family picked chokecherries with “pails belted to [their] waists”.

We see the author’s finesse with line breaks in “a letter to chief dan george”: “it was a good day/to die.” She turns back the hands of time and mixes things up, structure-wise, with the prose poem, “homebound,” where the “loud claps of thunder applauded the passing storm”. Personification-one of a writer’s best tools-is at play again in “bird watching”: “great bald eagle a tiny dot/weaving in the highest skies/blesses the day”.

The poems in these 183-pages tell an interesting life story in snapshots, using colours, dialogue, images, and miniature poems-within-the-poems, like this: “nohkom smells of sage/and sweetgrass—/it may mean nothing now/but my heart will remember/the scent of smudge/in her braids”. Poetry helps us remember those things that “may mean nothing now,” but certainly will one day.
Congratulations, Mika Lafond, and thank you for adding your voice to the collective music of Canadian poetry.


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