8 December 2021

by Elise Marcella Godfrey
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95 ISBN 9-780889-778405

I didn’t know what pitchblende was before I read Elise Marcella Godfrey’s same-named poetry collection, but I certainly do now. To shortcut, merriam-webster.com describes pitchblende as “a brown to black mineral that consists of massive uraninite, has a distinctive luster, contains radium, and is the chief ore-mineral source of uranium”. It’s a measure of the poet how Godfrey takes this radioactive by-product of uranium ore—and the capitalist/colonialist/mostly male culture surrounding its extraction and usage—and transforms it into a finely-tuned collection of political, environmental, and investigative poetry.

Godfrey writes from “the traditional and unceded land of the QayQayt First Nation” on Vancouver Island, and this well-researched, multi-voiced collection exhibits a deep caring for the earth and its peoples. Her cry is clear: “the neocolonial machine … promotes profit and industry at the expense of community and sustainability.”

Pitchblende does not read like a first book. Godfrey’s a graduate of the Master of Fine Arts in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan and her work’s appeared in journals and anthologies: she’s put in the literary leg work, and it shows. These poems are saturated with internal and off-rhymes rhymes—ie: “Mine and refinery,” “Throwing off gamma rays, errant vibrations/that penetrate in waves,” and “Ancient dust from dying stars. Excision sites, scars”—and the precise language of mining and the boreal world, ie: “Blueberry, cloudberry, bearberry, mossberry./Juniper. Currant. Indigo/milk caps, morels, chanterelles. Wild rice. Lichens.” I appreciate the mouth-watering language of science, too: “Fungus forms/mycological rhizomes,/foliose, fruticose, squamulose/lobes and crustose structures.” Ironic how what sounds so pretty—”milky green water, as if golden moonglow lichen/crushed and glittered into it”—illustrates such ecological devastation.

The poems appear in various forms but most notable are the erasure poems. Godfrey wrote the collection “after reading testimonies given at public hearings held throughout Saskatchewan in 1993 on the territories of Treaties 4, 6, 8 and 10.” These hearings’ transcripts—from mining industry representatives; biologists; a male-exclusive, federally-appointed panel; Indigenous Elders; and “a united group of women (who were white settlers)” are archived, and Godfrey “adapted sections of testimony, while also writing poems triggered by their content and related research.” The erasure poems spotlight distinct words which graphically explode across the page, often with just one or two words on a line, and much space around them. There’s abundant alliteration throughout, and even onomatopoeia (“Read the radiograph,/its staccato syntax scrambled”).

Several poems are written in a speaker’s voice, ie: “Elder’s Testimony” at Hatchet Lake: “Caribou still come south/but the government tells us we can’t eat the kidneys/heavy with metals: cadmium, polonium, cesium, lead./The government says it’s okay to eat the liver.” A Black Lake Elder’s concerns—“We’re worried uranium will ruin our water”—are contrasted against Uraneco’s response—“If anything, the region will be cleaner after we leave.” Call-and-response; it’s highly effective.

This daring poet puts a finger on the pulse of a hurting earth, where humans “crack the ancient world’s ribs/for one last gasp” and “Our sun is set to swallow us.” Powerful, and true.


No Comments

Comments are closed.