he played injun in gods country
where boys proved themselves clean
dumb beasts who could cut fire
out of the whitest sand
he played english across the trail
where girls turned plum wild
garlic and strained words
through the window of night
he spoke through numb lips and
breathed frontier (“injun”)
The first work I encountered by Vancouver poet Jordan Abel was blind, as part of my time judging the 24th annual Short Grain Competition for Saskatchewan’s Grain magazine in 2012 (he came in second), and the work leapt up at me in a way I’ve rarely experienced. Now some of that same work finally appears in a trade collection, his third—Injun (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2016)—after The Place of Scraps (Talonbooks, 2013) [see my review of such here] and Un/inhabited (Talonbooks/Project Space Press, 2014) [see my review of such here]. Injun extends Abel’s remarkable series of reclamation projects (or: project) that bring such a freshness, lively energy and engagement to Canadian and North American poetry, engaged with conversations attached to Idle No More and Truth and Reconciliation, and Language/Conceptual Poetries. Anyone suggesting that conceptual writing has no heart, or that contemporary poetry has exhausted itself, really needs to start engaging with Abel’s work.
he heard snatches of comment
going up from the river bank
all them injuns is people first
and besides for this buckskin
why we even shoot at them
and seems like a sign of warm
dead as a horse friendship
and time to pedal their eyes
to lean out and say the truth
all you injuns is just white keys
Abel’s book-length projects open a series of conversations on race, colonization and aboriginal depictions, utilizing settler language and blending an exhaustive research with erasure to achieve an incredible series of inquiries and subversions, twisting racist phrases, ideas and words back in on themselves. In a recent interview posted at Touch the Donkey, Abel wrote: “[…] if your writing is only resistant, only oppositional, only focused on decolonization, you kind of end up writing yourself into a corner. That resistance alone is somehow insubstantial and unsustainable. More or less, this makes a lot of sense to me, and I think it’s exceptionally important to balance out that resistance with presence. Or perhaps balance out decolonization with resurgence.” He continued:
Primarily, the texts that I’ve focused on as source texts have all been written from a settler-colonial perspective, and, I think, have pointed towards the kinds of foundational knowledges that should be resisted. My challenge, so far, has been to articulate an Indigenous presence from within those texts. TPOS is probably my most accessible example of this. From within Barbeau’s voice comes my own voice, an Indigenous voice. In that resistance and disassembly of Barbeau’s writing an Indigenous presence emerges.
Further, in an October 2014 interview conducted by Elena E. Johnson for Event magazine, Abel discussed the research and erasures that make up the individual book-length components of this ongoing project (specifically, his previous book, Un/inhabited):
Un/inhabited is a study in context. The book itself is draws from 91 Western novels that total over 10,000 pages of source text. Each piece in the book was composed by searching the source text for a specific word that related to the social and political aspects of land use, ownership and property. For example, when I searched for the word “uninhabited” in the source text, I found that there were 15 instances of that word appearing across the 10,000 page source text. I then copied and pasted those 15 sentences that contained the word “uninhabited” and collected them into a discrete unit. The result of this kind of curation is that the context surrounding the word is suddenly visible. How is this word deployed? What surrounds it? What is left over once that word is removed? Ultimately, the book accumulates towards a representation of the public domain as a discoverable and inhabitable body of land.
Abel’s project both engages and works to unsettle, attempting both an ease and unease into the ongoing shame of how aboriginals are treated and depicted in Canada through repetition, erasure and settler language. Simply through usage, Abel forces us, the occupiers, to confront our language, in an effort to reconcile, restore and heal, none of which can truly exist without real conversation. The poems in Injun exist as a single book-length erasure and reclamation project, one with the result of seeing sketched erasures alongside exploded characters that are difficult to replicate within the space of this kind of review. Lines and phrases explode across the page. At the end of Injun, he includes this short “[ PROCESS ],” that writes:
Injun was constructed entirely from a source text comprised of 91 public domain western novels with a total length of just over ten thousand pages. Using CTRL+F, I searched the source text for the word “injun,” a query that returned 509 results. After separating out each of the sentences that contained the word, I ended up with 26 print pages. I then cut up each page into a section of a long poem. Sometimes I would cut up a page into three- to five-word clusters. Sometimes I would rearrange the pieces until something sounded right. Sometimes I would just write down how the pieces fell together. Injun and the accompanying materials are the result of those methods.