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This poem is taken from PN Review 251, Volume 46 Number 3, January - February 2020.

The Resistance Nyla Matuk
‘And so this being the time of manifestos, here is mine: that poetry, at its best, does not speak on behalf of the self. It speaks on behalf of the Other. It speaks on behalf of community. It speaks the self only in so far as the self is part of something larger,’ Kei Miller wrote in The Poetry Review in 2017.1 His declaration bears a resemblance to a number of ideas I grappled with as I prepared and edited Resisting Canada: An Anthology of Poetry, published in September 2019 by Véhicule Press of Montreal. The twenty-eight contributors address a plethora of ills resulting from the statecraft of a settler-colonial enterprise, i.e., Canada. Miller’s manifesto takes up poetry’s capacity to bear witness – perhaps to injustice, or to a measure of social agency. It underscores a distinction between the enduring legacy of the egotistical sublime of the English Romantics – ‘on behalf of self’ poems and confessional poetry, which narrate an individual, and poetry with a view to collective consciousness, a politics not necessarily exclusively of identity and identity’s fraught subjective realities, but telling ‘history from below,’ of a collective identity ready to present such a history.

Many of the poets I included in the anthology address the myriad ways Indigenous Peoples, who lived on the land called Turtle Island before colonisers arrived from Europe, have been dispossessed. They still live here, and they are still being colonised. The poets examine, inter alia, the fallout of shameful Canadian institutions such as residential schools, and the violence against Indigenous women and girls that is a legacy of the originally racist assumptions that accrued over decades and centuries. The imperialist mindset led to stealing and settling lands, acts of violence and betrayal perpetrated by white people from Europe. The long history of stealing from, and/or destruction of, First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples’ lands, customs,  mythologies, and languages, was informed by Europeans’ doctrine of terra nullius – a belief in the existence of a land without people – and the ethos of Biblical manifest destiny, wherein Europeans gave themselves divinely-ordained rights to colonise.

I started work on the anthology while I was conducting the research for a long biographical essay that examined the roots of my parents’, and my own, relationships to the Canadian state. I began to make sense of why my father, a Palestinian from Jerusalem born during the colonial British Mandate period (1918–48) might find himself living in Canada. The question also arose in connection with my mother, who was born in New Delhi, India, before the end of the British Raj and lived through the sectarian violence of the partition of the subcontinent. Her lineage is half Afghan (Pashto) and half Turkish. I didn’t need to read too far into these histories to discover the very long shadow cast, from the transfer of populations, onto a colonial place like Canada. My parents’ story begins with ethnic cleansing operations in Palestine and India that resulted from geopolitical strategies for separating people into states that were conceived of along the lines of ethnic and religious identity and demographic manipulation. This dangerous project continues in Palestine today and less visibly, against minorities in India and in other countries around the world. Kashmir, under military occupation as of September 2019, is another territory in the grip of colonial strategies whose machinations were concocted at the time of the partition of India. Creating displaced, stateless and refugee populations or forcing immigration to North America, the geopolitical maneuvers – which went hand in hand with the dispossession of people from their land, the de-development of their cultural and civic identities, cities, infrastructures, and natural environments – have yet to be reckoned with in full.

The poems I selected are not about cultural or ethnic personal identity; they consider social conditions created by the settler-colonial state and how such conditions may impinge on identity, or attempt to erase identity. As I started to think about the effects of resistance poems, I also began to question the frequently drawn distinction between, on the one hand, poems of private consideration (such as those communing with nature, an object of romantic love, or other loci of meaning English language readers often associate with the English Romantics or the American Transcendentalists), and poems of public concern in which political agency and resistance are the subjects, akin to Kei Miller’s ‘something larger’. The anthology represents the return to concerns with collective identity at a time when concerns of personal identity seem to dominate as a mode for poetry published today, particularly in the United States.

But the ‘something larger’ Kei Miller developed could also engage a writer’s political agency. It need not circumscribe resistance, but may be about insisting on existing, on not going away. In a 2018 conversation with author Dionne Brand in the Literary Review of Canada, the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg political theorist, poet, and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson – a contributor to the anthology – underscored the creative power of bringing personal and political agency to writing while disregarding the need to be understood and the expectation of accommodating those who have colonised and estranged one’s people: a refusal of erasure:
‘Wider audience’ is code for white audience, which is code for less angry, less political, more palatable. It means paying attention to the experience of a white person reading my work with very little knowledge of the Indigenous. It means privileging the experience of a white person reading my work over Indigenous readers. Making sure that I’m making my point without offence. Paying attention to tone. Having a glossary so ‘everyone’ can understand the Nishnaabeg words. Removing insider knowledge and layered meanings. Being concerned with such things produces different work. It limits the stories you can tell and the way you tell them. It limits the worlds you can build. I’ve always been drawn to writers that reject this premise. I like reading books where Indigenous lives and worlds are affirmed. Where we are not victims or feeding victim narratives. Where we open up worlds, not close them down.2

In one of her contributions, ‘Remembering Mahmoud, 1976,’ the Stó:Lo Nation poet Lee Maracle invokes the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish3, as well as the affinities between the struggles of Indigenous Sioux and Oglala Lakota and Palestinians, all of whom have been murdered by settler-colonial state military (the United States and Israel, respectively). Both Maracle’s tears and her daughter’s presence signal a personal engagement to a larger collective, referencing the 2008 and 2014 attacks on Gaza, and the 1890 and 1973 massacres at Wounded Knee, South Dakota:
-40 Celsius in Winnipeg
Palestinians and Indigenous children wave placards
Stop killing children in Palestine
Free Gaza
My tears freeze on my face
my daughter is there
just as she was there 35 years ago
Chanting Free Palestindians
my frozen tears cut pain lines on my face

I whisper Palestine, Palestine – Free Palestine

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