I want to start here.
language is neutral seared into the spine’s unraveling.
here is history too.”
Dionne Brand, No Language is Neutral
I can’t write an essay on the political implications of Canadian nature poetry. I don’t believe in Canada, nature, or poetry. These categories are persuasive logics, but they do not offer possibilities beyond the repetition of a violence that naming does not dissipate. For each poet and every poem, a separate and distinct violence is contained. My writing is not large enough to contain all of the hurt and joy in this place. It spills out of the poem. It ruptures the essay. It unmakes me as easily as it makes you.
Some of us will never be the poets who look out onto empty land. We know the empty is filled with life. There is no beautiful wilderness for us. No true North, strong and free. We are not neutral observers. We understand intimately that the taxology of natural life was not intended for our liberation, but our abjection.
In the poem “That Instrument of Laughter,” from her award-winning debut poetry collection Voodoo Hypothesis, poet and writer Canisia Lubrin writes
“Wherever you happen to be/remember how the moon tilts its forehead on the bay/to permit the sun, erasure.”
Her lines conjure the images of the moon and the sun, a bay reflecting light, and a “you” in a place that isn’t named. Perhaps the place isn’t named because the place is everywhere. Lubrin’s opacity may be a gesture towards to the complicated mechanics of erasure through the ambiguity of the speaker’s location and being. It’s possible that Lubrin is speaking to a different reader than you, one who immediately knows the bay and the moon that she conjures. Regardless of Lubrin’s technical intentions, her poem suggests that wherever we are, the language of comparison and disappearance is always present.
Her poem is not a nature poem, even if its images are of “nature.” It is not a poem which names any one place overtly but it is intimately tied to specific histories of land and movement.
Is this poem considered Canadian by virtue of where its publisher is located or the citizenship of its author? Who is permitted and who is erased by this interrogation?
The question of the “natural” is a question of the “human” just as the question of the “Canadian” is a question of place.
Nature poetry is always colonial.
To imagine the natural is to envision the unnatural, to police the borders of the wild and the tamed, to decide who is animal and who is human, to hold the colonial archive of place against your body to mark where you end and the outside Other ends. To govern, to subordinate, to destroy, to consume, to hunger, to murder, to steal, to witness.
To write a “nature” poem is to choose to write entire lands and peoples into the archive of the missing to justify your own dominion.
In her essay “Dark Matters,” Tuscarora writer Alicia Elliot offers this mediation on Canada and settler colonialism. Describing the mindset of settler colonialism, she writes:
“Terra nullius, they called it. Empty land. It takes a certain kind of arrogance to assume that everything is empty before you choose to see it.”
Her essay traces the ongoing legacy of setter colonialism and reveals how its persuasive logics of dispossession continue to endanger and take Indigenous life within the place of “Canada.” For Elliot, it is impossible to consider the current realities of life in this place and others without contending with the language of theft, emptiness, and discovery.
What is a nature poem inside this context but an extension of “terra nullius” into the figurative imagination of the colonizer? What murderous possibilities arise from seeing the land as an inhuman and unpopulated expanse of nothing? Most critically, who has the arrogance to assume that they can write beyond this violence? If the land has not been and can never be empty, what does that make the ones who forcibly imagine it as barren?
Are Canadian poets explorers, invaders, or accidental witnesses? The difference between these three categories is submerged inside the nature poem. To write about a place without acknowledging how it came to be is to write a fiction that celebrates the outcome – Canada as an inevitable by-product of events that writer is not accountable to.
The category of “nature” arises from the ongoing dispossession of peoples from their environment. To contrast the natural world from the human world is to imagine a hierarchy of being which justifies domination. To empty a land of meaning is to soak history in blood until everything dissolves. To project your emotions into the land requires the erasure of a theft that is ongoing and pervasive. The imagery of a nature poem is always already the language of colonization.
In her essay “Coming to Voice,” writer Carrianne Leung describes a foundational moment in her childhood which shaped her becoming as a writer. Recalling the landscape of Scarborough and a pivotal race between her and a white classmate, Leung writes:
“In the 70s, I was a tiny Chinese kid in Scarborough, quiet to the point of mute. Teachers asked my mom at parent meetings if I was being abused because clearly something was wrong with my statue-like presence in the classroom. I wasn’t just silent, I was also dead still, afraid to move, afraid to take up any space.”
Following the common logic of what is natural and a poem, her essay does not seem to be an example of nature poetry. Yet the landscape of Scarborough — urbanized and populated — is as much a natural environment as any other place in what is called “Canada.” Her observations are not about nature but are deeply informed by her relationship to the places where she lives. When Leung writes “afraid to take up any space,” she makes a crucial observation about the entanglement of the outside and inner places that we reside. The violence inside us is as powerful as the violence without us.
Scarborough and Leung’s essay have as much claim to the category of the natural and poetic as Al Purdy’s poems about Baffin Island do, but the limits of Canadian imagination define one literary landscape as noble in order to pretend that the other is merely ordinary. Locating the “urban” outside of the “natural” is an intentional strategy of the Canadian poetic to structurally silence and marginalize those who reside in “urban” environments. Only the wealthy Canadian poet — on vacation, traveling abroad, going to the cottage — is allowed to enter the “natural” and report back.
This specific figurative power over place and our ability to “move” within it is a colonial logic. Its end goal is not beauty, but death.
No nature poem in Canada is benevolent. No poet is just an observer. Every poem and poet is a willing participant in someone’s disappearance.
Does a trans woman have a body? Do I inhabit a place? Can I speak from within a “here” without being expected to speak for all of the “here” that surrounds me? I trace a map of relationships between me and others to create a constellation of stars to orient me back to the body and the “here” I reside in. I never find my way to home. Exile is not a destination, but an inheritance.
My body is a place that others pass through. I’m a tourist destination, a space for people to experience and learn on their way to something and someone better. My mouth is a green valley, an open space with no proper rules to govern it. My writing is merely educational. I am important for my representative value like a field that you sow over and over again until I reap nourishment. I am not a place where anyone makes a home or returns to. I am felt and possessed then disappeared back into emptiness.
In my poem “Tonight,” from my third book of poetry, Holy Wild, I write:
“I am the wild
that is not empty
that is not dead
and the girl
you won’t call yours”
I am not claiming a colonial binary of the natural life but marking my attempt to escape from it. I repeat the questions: who loves me and who will claim me as their “here”? I am a woman who can never be acknowledged as wholly female, never entirely repaired back into the human. I exceed the properness of place and nation. I live in the spaces between you and the lands you deem worthy of tending.
A poet might say my body is a nature poem. Something inhuman. My face is an unruly beauty to look at. Too many angles and not enough fences, a broad forehead that rushes into a high hairline as the trace of beard shadow lingers underneath foundation. Between my legs is a wild creature, unseen and imagined as monstrous by all except for the cruel explorers who take and never give.
I am a cold lake, reflecting back whatever you brought to this place. The human in me is hopelessly ruptured by the animal that you have made me. What you despise in me is always what you fear in yourself.
In his essay “Race, Privilege, and the Canadian Wilderness,” writer Phillip Dwight Morgan describes his complex relationship to the outdoors through the narrative of a cycling trip across Canada. His essay is a profoundly generous work that explores many questions of place, power, and belonging to problematize how the idea of Canada’s wilderness is commonly imagined. Reflecting on his experiences, he writes:
“It is only now, with the benefit of time and nearly 8,000 kilometres’ worth of attempts to belong, that I am beginning to see the problems behind Canada’s nature myth and the depth of humanity, experience, and richness it excludes.”
Inside Morgan’s essay, notions of Canada, place, and the natural collapse into each other. He examines the place of Scarborough from a different vantage point as Leung, but their essays inhabit related geographies of violent erasure and resurgence. As Morgan asks, what does it mean to relate to the Canadian wild in recognition of the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples? To form new reciprocal relationships which affirm the varied specifities of place without erasing or displacing other competing claims? How does being called to represent and witness further disappearance? As Morgan poetically references in a CBC interview with his words, “I found that telling my stories over and over again actually defeated the purpose. I actually felt less seen,” being required to narrate your place in a landscape often furthers the original violence of dispossession.
More critically, as Morgan contends with in his essay, how do we write and imagine the places we relate inside when the national mythology of those places is predicated on the impossibility of our existence?
This essay is a poem but it is more than a poetic description. It is not a dialogue, the start of a conversation, or a call to metaphorical decolonization. No one is responsible for making you a better person. I have not learned how to discipline myself to be the right representative. It is not an answer to this place, but many different kinds of “here” which asks each reader different questions.
It doesn’t matter what you do because you’re already doing something. Either erasure or relation, moon or sun. Press your fingers against someone’s wrist and feel the blood breathe through their veins. Listen to their heartbeat. Touch whatever land you find yourself on. Name the place between you and them.
Not as wild. Not as natural. Not as empty. Just as here.
As Néhiyaw poet and scholar Billy Ray Belcourt writes in his essay “Fatal Naming Rituals,” “All of my writing is against the poverty of simplicity. All of my writing is against the trauma of description.”
In her poem “White Men Call You a Dirty Immigrant but Comic Books Call You Vagabond,” poet Natalie Wee writes:
where you stand.”
Her imagery draws from the archive of place, horizon, and ocean to articulate a rooted sense of belonging which locates itself in the persistence of displacement. In Wee’s poem, the place of the speaker is always in question and arrives through migrations between connection and loss. Nature in Wee’s poem is not a blankness that she projects her selfhood into, but a refraction back of the “hereness” that travels with her. The place of her writing is not empty nor unpopulated, but rather is saturated with many other voices, memories, and landscapes.
What does it mean to consider, as Wee does, place and landscape as more than binaries of belonging or exclusion? If place is laden with a colonial history and an ever-emergent history, as Dionne Brand instructs us, what is a “nature” poem? Would not all poems be nature poems as we are all “placed”? If all poems are “nature poems,” the label of “nature poet” is not a technical distinction but a political one.
Rather than embrace a binary of nature/urban or empty/settled, we could, as Morgan, Leung, Lubrin, Elliot, Wee, and Brand suggest, acknowledge our collective entanglement with a placeness that is always in excess of what we call “Canada” and “poetry.” We could return to a “here,” a place with a history that is constantly unfurling and intersecting. We could do something greater than witness.
We could be.
I imagine someone asking “but what about _____” and I hear myself reply, “that’s a very good question and I look forward to someone else answering it.”
Gwen Benaway is a trans girl of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. She has published three collections of poetry and has two forthcoming works: a collection of poetry, Aperture, and a collection of essays, trans girl in love, in 2020. She is a Ph.D student in the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto.