On “Louis: The Heretic Poems”, by Gregory Scofield

In Louis: The Heretic Poems Gregory Scofield has created a moving and troubling poetic biography of Louis Riel. Combining his own imaginings of Riel’s (and others’) poetic musings — in English, Cree and a little French — with found poetry from such sources as Canadian Government immigration propaganda and House of Commons debate records.  Throughout is a dense net of Biblical allusion, as small portion of which I mention below.  The result is a fascinating portrait of a brilliant man thrust through his life by sensuality and Messianic drive.  Whether a madman or a prophet, the Riel Scofield brings us is wonderfully heretical.

Scofield has divided his cycle of poems into four parts: Le Garçon covers Riel’s life up to the end of his schooling; Le Président deals with his part in the Red River Rebellion and Provisional Government, his exile and his time in the Beauport Assylum; Le Porte-Parole deals in a fascinatingly oblique way with the Northwest Rebellion; and L’Homme d’État takes us through Riel’s last days.

The cycle begins in the voice of Riel’s Chipewyan Great Grandmother Marie Joseph leBlanc reciting a geneology parallel to those that open the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but the recitation is distinctly oral in texture rather than literary, and the diction while using English vocabulary, has an odd hybrid syntax — the sounds of Marie Joseph’s Dene Suline and French come through to those who heed her repeated injunction to “Open your ears . . .”  From these opening lines, Riel is a Christ figure.

Young Louis Riel then describes the long journey through the U.S. (the Canadian Pacific Railroad was still unbuilt) to school in Montreal before his two “Contrition” poems, “#7” asking forgiveness in the voice of a budding Messiah and “#3″ singing the emotional torrent of physical love in echoes of the Song of Solomon.  These two forces, Messiahhood and sensuality, will come to be in constant tension through Riel’s life and leadership as related in Scofield’s poems.  In” The Interview” and “Communion with David”, from Riel’s time in Beauport Assylum after the Red River Rebellion, Riel sings Old Testament style Psalms (cf. Psalms 89: 19ff. and 23:5ff.) identifying himself with King David and later, in “Dear Sir, To You I Say”, Riel stands up to Sir John A. MacDonald in Messianic terms, concluding with the ominous statement, again linking Riel to Christ through Matthew 10:34, that

I am only a poor poet
A lamb with a gun.

In contrast to the Messianic passages,  echoes of the Song of Solomon reverberate through, for example, “The Sacrament of Marie-Julie” and “The Confession of Evelina”.  In “I am a Poet”, Riel is at his most sensual, describing himself like a Métis Dionysus (with particular emphasis on his hair and moustache), but in Solomonic images rather than Classical.  And it is in “I am a poet” that the important image of the Orange first appears, here as a gift from Montreal, a city he describes as his lover. And the eating of the orange is described lovingly in parallel to poetic creation:

My mouth ran sweet. My pen
Never ceased. I am a poet.

When the Oranges reappear it is in the Red River Colony: the crate of rotten fruit who are, in fact, English Protestant settlers, Orangemen, who come to divide up Métis land amongst themselves, and who will ultimately cost Riel his life. Here, also in the context of the orange image, Riel recast’s the Lord’s Prayer as his own:

â-haw kisê-manitow
mâmaw-ôhtawîmaw
give us this day our daily oranges;
and forgive them their trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us;
and lead us not into war
but deliver us from theft.

For the land is our Kingdom,
and the power of our children,
forever and ever,
â-haw!

In contrast to the deep feeling, the deep oral history and geneology and the full blooded physicality of the poems of Riel and Dumont, of Marie Joseph, Evelina and the women of “The Sewing Circle”, the words of the Government in the found poems are cold, the shallow jargon of marketing, the formality of Sir John’s political debate polka, and the drunk, sad misogeny of “Sir John’s Reel”.  The fall of Louis Riel and the Métis Nation becomes clearly a tragedy of Biblical scale in Scofield’s hands, King David is hanged, his general in exile and his people scattered, the women weeping.

Primed by Scofield’s clear echoes of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, I had open beside me as I read The Heretic Poems Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

But the deep tragedy (heresy?) of The Heretic Poems is that the Métis (and other aboriginal nations) are exiles not in a strange land, but in their own.  I, for one, am grateful that poets such as Scofield have found the voice to sing their songs in this, their own land, that they remember, and their tongues do not cleave to the rooves of their mouths, and that their writing hands have not forgot their cunning.  And all, whether rulers in Babylon or just trying to get by, must be grateful that the Old Testament sentiment of the last two verses of Psalm 137 have not been Scooped up by the heirs of Louis and Gabriel, of Big Bear and Poundmaker.

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

Louis: The Heretic Poems by Gregory Scofield is published by Nightwood Editions in collaboration with the Gabriel Dumont Institute.

End with a song:

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One comment on “On “Louis: The Heretic Poems”, by Gregory Scofield

  1. […] of Canada. kiyâm by Naomi McIlwraith A fascinating bilingual collection of meditative poems. Louis: The Heretic Poems by Gregory […]

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