A Review of Louise Bernice Halfe's Burning in this Midnight Dream
Review by Cassidy McFadzean
Contending with the stolen culture, land, and autonomy of Indigenous peoples, Louise Bernice Halfe’s fourth book Burning in this Midnight Dream offers a poetic response to Canada's residential schools. The former Saskatchewan Poet Laureate’s newest collection is in company with Rita Bouvier’s nakamowin’ sa for the seasons and Rosanna Deerchild’s Calling Down the Sky, recent books by prairie-based Indigenous poets speaking to the process of reconciliation. But while Bouvier’s collection gives snapshots of everyday Metís life organized around the seasons of the year (the last few autumnal poems delving into residential schools), and Deerchild’s revolves around the CBC host’s mother being turned away from Truth and Reconciliation interviews before opening up to her daughter, Burning in this Midnight Dream features no organizing structure outside of the poet’s own journey—and feels somewhat more unfiltered and relentless in its approach.
The book opens with a preamble by the author, followed by a foreword by Paulette Regan, Senior Advisor, Reconciliation at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Black-and-white family photographs appear throughout the collection, with the author’s grandsons and her parents’ wedding portrait presented before the poems. This material has the effect of reminding the reader of the devastating reality of these poems; the pictures force us to imagine our own family members, and the foreword, which informs us that “these poems are testimonies of truth, justice, and healing," reminds us that these experiences are shared by thousands of Indigenous people. In contrast to the official language of Regan’s endorsement, Halfe’s preamble makes a personal appeal. “Think of all the children, and weep,” she asks us. “Children fed to pedophile priests and nuns. Children whipped and starved.”
When the poems appear, the titles are in Cree and English. There are no section breaks, and only black-and-white photos to separate poems that address domestic violence, generational trauma, sexual assault, and the abuse of children. The photos don’t act as reprieve from the pared-down, blunt language of the poems, but rather mark the poems with human faces. Just when we may wish to turn away from the violence of the poems, a child’s smiling face turns toward us, a young man’s silhouette, mothers and their children. There is no escape. In a poem early in the collection, Halfe describes her poetic journey as a “backward walk," guiding us to visualize the interconnectedness between past and present, a process that for Halfe is to “turn [her] / skin inside out." Settler readers who feel even a shred of Halfe’s visceral pain may come to realize the extent of torture enacted in residential schools.
The poems come unceasingly. They delve into Halfe’s family history, but jump around in time. In “Residential School Alumni,” a title of seething irony, Halfe recalls an uncle who “shot his wife / left her lying behind the house," and left three sons who each met tragic ends. We follow Halfe from domestic violence to generational trauma to the source—the nuns and priests in residential schools, and a country that permitted it to happen:
The children were meat
for the scavengers. Indian Affairs, the brick walls,
the Saints of many churches
Filled with their disease, we ate the maggots
off their dead.
This cannibalism devoured our mother’s hearth
Halfe imagines colonialism as a type of cannibalism; the students are both sacrifices for the priests, and filled with the disease of the Catholic Church. In the confessional, the divine turns monstrous: “My eyes swelled, leaked pus, / my morning breath foul from the confessional. / The hail mary’s slid down my belly." Halfe’s description figures assimilation as intrinsically grotesque—an unsettling discovery. Halfe uses the same forthright, clear tone to detail sexual abuse inflicted by the nuns and priests, allowing the atrocity of these scenes to speak for themselves.
Behind the frank language of these poems, and behind the book’s foreword and preamble, is a didactic purpose outside of the book’s aesthetic accomplishments. In this sense, it is a very public book—poetic testimony—and lends veracity to stories that have historically been ignored. But it’s a very personal book, too, and Halfe says that she bears witness to these narratives in order to “reach the heart where history placed its frost-bite / on our ragged souls." As a settler, I cannot begin to imagine what it may be like for Indigenous readers to encounter these poems. I can only return to Halfe’s plea—and imagine all those children.
Cassidy McFadzean is the author of Hacker Packer (McClelland & Stewart 2015), winner of two Saskatchewan Book Awards and shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Cassidy graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2015 and is currently at work on a second collection of poetry.