1100 Trauma, neglect, and erasure
it was never going to be okay
Gibsons: Nightwood Editions, 2020
$18.95 / 9780889713826
Reviewed by Harper Campbell
it was never meant to be okay is the first book of poetry by jaye simpson, “an Oji-Cree Saultaux Indigiqueer writer and activist from the Sapotaweyak Cree Nation, with Scottish and French settler ancestry” (from their bio). The word activist is important there: after having spent sixteen years in the foster care system, simpson is vocal about its failures. “It’s never been broken, it’s doing exactly what it’s been designed [to do] — this is the grandchild of residential school,” they say to Katie Hyslop in a 2018 interview. “We can’t fix a system that’s been designed to destroy us. The only flaw in this system is that some of us survived.”
It’s no surprise then that simpson’s painful years in foster care are the subject of some of their most powerful poetry. This is most evident in the poem “haunting (a poem in six parts).” The sixth part reads in its entirety (formatting might not be accurately reproduced):
in her home for near a decade
during a large dinner
with her extended relatives:
someone called for a family photo.
i went to take my place in it
she said this one’s for family —
swatting my sister and me away.
the camera caught
the blur of my back.
it is the only family photo i am in.
have you haunted photo albums before?
Here, simpson brings us viscerally into the experience of neglect and erasure. The photograph becomes a metonym for their entire experience in foster care, and (in the context of the book) that itself becomes a metonym for colonialism.
Trauma is one of the major subjects of this collection. The particular voice simpson takes in regard to this trauma is interesting. As excoriating as some of these poems are, they are written with a certain healing distance. simpson bears witness to their own experiences, saying, in effect, yes, that’s how it really was. It leaves a clean feeling behind it.
Something admirable in this book is the way simpson subverts common conventions of the trauma narrative. For instance, we commonly depict survivors of trauma as helpless, innocent things wronged by a dangerous world. In the poem “sea glass,” which opens this collection, simpson shows how this trope tends to glorify the trauma itself. After all, kids don’t grow up hoping to be helpless and innocent; it’s in our nature to fight back against trauma. We need to honour the fighter in survivors, and that means loving their power to hurt. Here is an excerpt from the middle of the poem:
call me sea glass:
because i once was sharp
broken tossed in
thrashed on barnacle- & coral-clad rock,
pitched on log after drunken sunset
witnessed by shifting bonfire light.
they hardly ever remember
i used to cut.
I find “sea glass” the strongest poem in this book. It shows simpson at their best — powerfully emotional, layering metaphors unobtrusively, and with a form fluidly adapted to the subject.
Further poems explore relationships, simpson’s experiences as a sex worker, their appreciation of Lana del Rey and Florence and the Machine, and what it’s like to be Indigiqueer. This last subject comes up in another excellent poem, “boy,” which includes these memorable lines:
i am five
my sisters are saying boy
i do not know what the word means but
i am bruised into knowing it: the blunt b,
the hollowness of the o, the blade of y
oh how they struck
The relationship simpson sketches out to their trauma gives meaning to the title, it was never meant to be okay. By acknowledging how messed up things were from the beginning, how your personal pain connects to structures of power and colonialism, you can stop blaming yourself for your own suffering and begin to heal. At the same time, it subverts another one of our trauma narratives: that trauma is a surprise anomaly in a fundamentally just and peaceful world. No, as simpson says in the interview I quoted above, these are the traumas that a colonial state intended for us to have.
The healing theme becomes most explicit in the final section of the book. These poems take up questions of healing and show a connection with Indigenous practices — “culture saves lives,” as the slogan goes. In these lines from “healing//sacrifice//necessity,” we see part of simpson’s decolonial healing journey:
saltwater brine & pine-needle poultice
on fresh flesh wound where the knife bit
& silver needle binding angry red together,
clenched teeth biting down on hardened leather
sage ash & red clay smeared on my face
reopen old wounds to drain decade-old poison
& use traditional medicine to heal
these adhesions, abrasions & bruises;
grow hair out to braid in sweetgrass & twigs,
use creek-cool clay
to set fragmented & fractured bones,
lay tobacco tie after tobacco tie down
i am worth every single one, my healing is worth
every prayer, every song, every ceremony.
It must be poems like this one that caused Billy-Ray Belcourt to call this collection “a vital artifact of a decolonial future.” By witnessing the pain of the past, simpson grows power for the future, recovers their sharp edges, and will, I am sure, continue to fight against the colonial domination of life in Canada.
Harper Campbell has published poetry in Salish Seas: An Anthology of Text + Image (Aboriginal Writers Collective West Coast, 2011), an essay in The Salt Chuck City Review (volume 1, 2019), and translations of the Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar in Columbia Journal (2021) and Ezra (forthcoming). He has an honours degree in philosophy and Asian studies from the University of British Columbia. Editor’s note: Harper Campbell has also reviewed Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction, edited by Joshua Whitehead, for The Ormsby Review.
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