Book Review

NDN Coping Mechanisms by Billy-Ray Belcourt

strong canadian poems

This collection of poetry was also a Christmas gift from my lover, but unlike the noirish, glamorous fun and American sleaze of Chelsey Minnis’ Baby, I Dont Care, NDN Coping Mechanisms is a more serious, more poignant, collection of Canadian poetry by a queer poet from the Driftpile Cree Nation.

As you can perhaps guess – especially once you know that NDN is a series of letters used by indigenous, or First Nations, people to refer to themselves – this is a book about the legacy of colonialism in Canada.

NDN, Billy-Ray Belcourt tells us in a brief author’s note at the start of this (his second) book, is sometimes considered an acronym standing for “Not Dead Native”. The communities of indigenous peoples who survived the first waves of brutal, unpretentious colonial genocide have survived through some terrible atrocities in the centuries since, notably – in Canada – the mid-20th-century “residential schools” programme, which I learned about in detail last year from several books, most memorably The Mask That Sang by Susan Currie.

This legacy of stolen children and stolen culture persists, because this “slow genocide” was a deep attack on ways of living, traditions and belief systems. It was not just an assault on one culture, it was an assault on numerous cultures. If it had been Moctezuma rather than Cortes who had first crossed the Atlantic and begun continent-wide violence, it would not be the “European culture” we would claim to have lost, it would have been the distinct cultures of Renaissance Italy, Tudor England, Pagan-Catholic Ireland and (if the Aztecs had arrived a couple of decades sooner than the Spanish did in the Americas) the Andalusian Moorish caliphate, too.

Much as the lives in rural Scotland in the 15th century would have been vastly distinct from a contemporaneous Venice, so too would the cultures of Belcourt’s ancestors have been distinct from the large city states that were simultaneously thriving in Central America. I’m trying to emphasise my understanding of the diversity of Pre-Colombian “American” peoples here, because obviously they weren’t the same, though now I’ve said this, it probably implies that I think they were homogenous and I’ve probably written too much, cluelessly, about this sensitive topic (sensitive here in Canada, but relevant in lots of other places) and should probably back off.

NDN Coping Mechanisms a powerful book.

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The opening poem, ‘A Country Is How Men Hunt’, sets the tone and the focus of the book bluntly, but artfully, with lines such as “A village emptied of its children is a haunting” and “A man I love but don’t trust kisses me / the way a soldier might press his face into the soil of his old country.”

Across the collection, there is a beautiful complexity and variety to the modes of expression Belcourt uses. There is photography, which is sometimes followed by a poem as caption. The most memorable example of this (for me) was ‘At The Mercy Of The Sky’, a particularly harrowing pair of pieces: a bucolic photo of a crumbling outbuilding surrounded by lush vegetation, then a poem explaining that this is the last remaining part of a residential school, this ruinous place now itself a ruin.

There are sonnets, there is prose, there is other formal poetry and there is writing crafted through redacting / censoring / shading out racist, colonialist texts. Throughout NDN Coping Mechanisms there is hurt, there is pain, but there is also hope, as well as comfortable and confident pride.

Belcourt writes not only of his and his ancestors’ pasts, but he also writes of his present and, perhaps, of futures too. Historically, the indigenous peoples of the American landmass were more understanding of the ambiguities of gender and sexuality than those of us from Eurasia with our repressive Abrahamic religions, so there is a lot for the conservative – and even the progressive – reader to learn from these discussions of kinder, less repressive, traditions.

There’s a lot, too, about legacy, about the echoes of past pains and the ways in which these manifest in the present: a particular image that stuck with me was “the AIDS epidemic haunts queer poetry” (from ‘Desire Made Out of Time’). Memory is something that humanity benefits from, but is also cursed by. Though the pleasures and values of positive tradition and positive experience exist within our personal and collective memories, so too do those structures and events that caused great hurt.

I don’t have much to say about this articulate, intelligent, emotive writing, only that I recommend it, and to reiterate that, of all the domestic literature I’ve engaged with during the past 12 months in Canada, it is the writing from First Nations peoples that I have consistently found the most vibrant, and also the most vital. These voices, long – and deliberately – silenced, are now able to be listened to, despite the circumstances (eg lower life expectancies, higher risk of being the recipient of violence, diminished access to drinking water) persisting that still leave many indigenous communities disadvantaged.

Billy-Ray Belcourt is young, and he’s brilliant, and I’m sure he’ll write many more books as wise and perceptive as this one.

Great stuff.

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