Roo Borson Personal History Essay

Photo credit: Sue Schenk

Roo Borson, born 20 January 1952. B.A. from Goddard College (1973), M.F.A. from the University of British Columbia (1977). Writer in Residence at the University of Western Ontario 1987-88, and at Concordia University 1993.


She has given readings across Canada, in the United States and in Australia, and is represented in a wide array of anthologies, including The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, the Norton Introduction to Poetry, the Norton Introduction to Literature, and The Morningside Papers. Currently lives in Toronto with poet Kim Maltman, and with Kim Maltman and Andy Patton is a member of the collaborative performance poetry ensemble Pain Not Bread.

Roo Borson has received many awards for her work, including the Governor General's Literary Award, 2004, and the Griffin Poetry Prize, 2005 for Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida.

Roo Borson's works copyright © to the author.


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Analysis
2.1. Gregory Scofield
2.2. Marilyn Dumont
2.3. Roo Borson
2.4. Louise Bernice Halfe

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“I write to heal”write to heal” (Scofield Gathering 82[1] ), “writing became my medicine” (Halfe Bear 127[2] ), “be healed through creative expression” (Payne 135 [3] ), “he writes us weapons and shields, weaves us blankets” (Driskill 222[4] ), “Indigenous writers (...) narrate Indigenous experiences under colonialism in an effort to heal” (Episkenew 1[5] ).

Native literature - be it a poem, a drama, a novel or research literature - brims over with allusions as to why Native writers mostly intend to write, to compose and to publish: to tell the truth, to spread their culture, to strengthen their identity, to empower and find themselves, to unite, to change, to resist, to reanimate.

But nearly every reason and method to do so ultimately starts and ends with an attempt to heal.

Many Native and Métis authors for example write about their own lives, experiences and emotions - say about the loss of a beloved person - to cure their own “soul wound[s]” (Episkenew 5). Some process the history or widespread problems of many Natives to treat the wounds of their whole community caused by alcohol, rape and exclusion.

They attempt to heal “injuries that colonialism and racism had inflicted” (1) e.g. by telling the Natives’ history from their own perspective, a ‘history from below’ in the manner of speaking.

In this term-paper, I will concentrate on this very act of healing and therefore also on the contents of their poems rather than on their form.

I want to examine different works with a particular focus on the wounds, which demand to be healed, within them and I want to present the ‘patients’ that suffer from these injuries - i.e. the people that are to be cured.

In doing so, I will analyse the works of Gregory Scofield, Marilyn Dumont, Louise Bernice Halfe and Ruth ‘Roo’ Borson.

Which issues do these poets attempt to process by writing about them?

Do they primarily try to heal themselves or do they want to treat the wounds of their entire communities?

The fact that Scofield and Dumont are of mixed race, whereas Halfe and Borson are not, further raises the question whether there are significant differences between their poetry and the contents of their works.

In addition to these aspects mentioned above, I will finally try to answer the question whether each author employs distinct methods to process the issues within his or her poetry - such as code-switching or irony.

2. Analysis

2.1. Gregory Scofield

Gregory Scofield’s life story, which is characterized by violence, drugs and the absence of his biological father (cf. Richards 1[6] ), suggests that his work features an abundance of themes, topics and - most of all - many wounds demanding a remedy.

In addition to these issues mentioned above, another aspect playing a role in Scofield’s poetry is indeed the jigsaw of his identity (cf. Scudeler 130[7] ; Driskill 223).

He is a Half-Breed of Cree, Scottish and English descent; and he is openly homosexual.

But how do these aspects influence Scofield’s poetry? What bearing do e.g. a long-lasting drug abuse, being gay and being Half-Breed have on the contents of his work?

One aspect, which clearly occupies a major role in his poetry, is that Scofield had to suffer from a violent step-father (cf. Richards 1), who beat Scofield’s mother numerous times in front of her son.

In his poem “Talking Because I Have To” (Gathering 42), the speaker describes how he heard his “mother scream” (4) and how “she just lay there, convulsing under his / boots” (6-7).

The title of this respective poem reveals that Scofield employs his writing to process different issues from his own past, of which the violence in his parents’ house seems to be among the most important and demanding ones.

In his poems “The Last Uncivilized Indians” (Canadiana 36 ) and “Cycle (of the black lizard)” (Canadiana 106), the poet again takes up the violence against his mother as the predominant issue.

In the first poem, the speaker says that he covered his head with a pillow “to drawn out her screams” (7-8), whereas in “Cycle”, the persona describes how his mother “got smashed / with his drunk fist” (7-8), thus also underlining that the attacker acted under the influence of alcohol.

In “Cycle”, the speaker furthermore compares his subjective sufferings and his own experiences with those of “Other boys” (21) who have attended a “boarding school” (21) and “never talked out loud / for fear the lizard / would creep into their beds” (22-24).

He juxtaposes his experiences - domestic violence applied by his drunken step-father - with that of other Native children, who were raped by clergymen, i.e. “lizard[s]” (23), in a boarding school.

I conjecture that one could differentiate between Scofield attempting to heal his own wounds and Scofield publicizing widespread issues like cases of abuse which numerous Native children had to suffer and still suffer from (at least from the long-term consequences).

I think, one can speak of ‘individual healing’ meant to cure private and problems - in this case those of the author - and one can talk of a broader ‘societal healing’ intended to direct the readers’ attention to general problems of the Native community such as drug abuse, the loss of their culture or - in this case - the abuse of pupils entrusted in the Church’s care.

Other examples of an attempt on ‘societal healing’ can be found in Scofield’s poems: he tries to come to terms with his identity and even more in those in which the artist plays with different stereotypes or talks about the Natives’ history.

In his poem “Barter Tongue” (Gathering 23), Scofield ironically employs a stereotype of Natives.

The speaker of the poem talks about a knitting job and says that it seems “only natural to put on [his] bush accent / That dealer likes to think / He’s supporting a dying art not to mention / A dying race” (10-13).

In the same poem, the poet refers to another general issue among Natives by writing that his speaker works “damn hard for [his] / drinking money” (14-15).

Using irony, the Métis writer stresses that especially Native artists are sometimes not able or willing to detach themselves from their cultural and racial backgrounds.

So why shouldn’t they derive advantage from the Western prejudices and use them to support the sale of their own works?

The aspect of “drinking money” (14-15) in turn puts emphasis on the role alcohol plays in the lives of many First People, although the slightly humorous (or rather ironical) background in[8] which these two lines occur indeed allays the effect of referring to this issue to a certain extent.

Nevertheless, Scofield talks about this to underline that many Natives earn money in order to buy alcohol or other drugs.

So, in this case, the speaker uses his own cultural background and his identity as a member of a “dying race” (14 - 15) to earn money and to be able to buy alcohol, which is another aspect Scofield seems to criticize.

In “All in the Interpretation” (Gathering 76), Scofield assays to apply ‘societal healing’ by again talking about the rape of Native children in the Church’s care: “An entire generation / Scarred / senseless hailing Mary / So full of our disgrace / Refused to hear us / After the lights went out / God’s hands went to work” (11-17).

Here, Scofield mentions a wound which has affected many Native children, whereas the poet himself has probably never been raped by “God’s hands” (17) in school.

This evinces that he primarily acts as a healer for his community as well as a mouthpiece for his people by bringing up these issues.

In “Policy of the Dispossessed” (Canadiana 51f), Scofield delineates the displacement of his ancestors out of their “homeland” (2), “motherland” (13), “nation” (21), “all public lands” (24), and “Canada” (36).

The emptiness of these terms (cf. Andrews Irony 10[9] ) as well as a speaker mentioning that his ancestors had to do dirty work such as gathering “Seneca root / or ... [doing] odd jobs for white farmers” (Scofield Canadiana 51, 14-15) put emphasis on the long suffering, the social descent and the multiple losses the Native community was confronted with.

Besides talking about these social problems, the poet also refers to the loss of the Natives’ culture and especially to the ‘loss’ of their language by saying that “they perfected their English / wiped away any trace of a dark language” (18-19).

Thus, “Scofield unmasks the power and dominance associated with English and ironically exposes its inability to represent his community’s beliefs and desires” as Andrews puts it (Irony 10).

It is remarkable that Scofield combined the word “language” (Scofield Canadiana 51, 19) with the derogatory adjective “dark” (19).

The latter word supports the impression that the indigenous languages were either considered “dark” (19) by the English colonists or that the Natives were less and less able to use their own languages due to its suppression emanating from the Non-Natives.

So the English or rather the Non-Native people trimmed away the Natives’ edges to adjust them to Western values thus oppressing them and almost gagging a whole culture.

I assume that this is what the speaker tries to say in this poem.

Occasionally, the poet talks about his personal attitude and emotions towards being Half­Breed, which is often connected with coming to terms with his own being (cf. Driskill 231), with integration and classification.

Scofield does so for example in his poem “Divided” (Gathering 45).

Here, he gives an impression of the identity crisis in which many Half-Breeds are trapped. This description is based on personal feelings, thoughts and experiences.

The speaker considers himself a “Skin without colour” (3), as not “Red enough” (5).

He admits that he “never forgot [his] red half ... Especially if you looked not right white ... But wrong white ... Dirty white” (10-13).

These lines stress that Scofield and also other Half-Breeds are often not able to identify themselves exclusively with their Native or exclusively with their Non-Native identity.

They cannot find their places among these people for both communities lack spaces that are suitable for them.

According to the speaker, Half-Breeds often remain pariahs in the eyes of communities, and they never really belong to one distinct group of people - although one could argue that the people of mixed-blood accomplished to form their own communities.

Scofield uses his own emotions and experiences to make this clear to his recipients.

In “Between Sides” (Gathering 81), he again presents his Métis identity as being divided into two parts that do not belong to one particular community: “my way is not the Indian way or white way / I move in-between / Careful not to shame either side” (17-19).

Although he describes his ‘in-between-ness’[10] in a negative way by emphasizing the shame connected with it, he implies that he is also able to take advantage of it.

He has the possibility to benefit from both cultures and he can merge them into a new, distinct one.

Similar as in “Divided” (Gathering, 45) and as in “Between Sides” (Gathering, 81), Scofield takes up the ‘in-between-ness’ of Half-Breeds in his poem “Mixed Breed Act” (Canadiana 54f).

In this poem, the artist presents the feeling of being Half-Breed in a more general or impersonal way by using the first person plural: “end up scrunched between / suffocating ourselves to act accordingly / However we’re told to act” (37-40).

In addition to the fact that Scofield traces a more impersonal way of quarrelling with a Half­Breed identity, he also links being Métis with “negative connotations” (Andrews 5) in using terms such as “suffocating” (39) or “scrunched” (37).

Scofield simply underlines the fight to become part of a community without standing out. Besides writing about his racial identity, stereotypes and violence, it also seems worthwhile to examine the inclusion of Scofield’s sexuality in his poetry, since it constitutes a major element of his work.

Interestingly, the author often connects being gay and especially the sexual intercourse between men with Native culture and ceremony.

He e.g. does so in his poem “More Rainberries (The Hand Game)” (Medicine 33f[11][12] ) in which the persona talks about “pushing the song up and out / of his skin / so lowly he sings” (7-9) and about “tossing up / the body’s ancient rhythm” (14-15), until - finally - his “hands, delirious with song / sway to his drumming” (19-20).

Thus, Scofield joins sexual intercourse, i.e. the “ancient rhythm” (15), with music and other ceremonial elements which - in turn - are part of Native culture.

Similar to this, Scofield also links eroticism with Native song, dance and spirituality in his poem “My Drum, His Hands” (Medicine 39).

Here, the speaker utters the following words: “over the bones, over the bones / stretched taunt / my skin, my drum / softly he pounds / humming” (1-5) and “he carries me to dreams / his hands wet / and gleaming / my drum aching” (17-20).

Again, Scofield intertwines music, culture and ceremony, “humming” (5), “dreams” (17) and “drum[s]” (20) with sexual intercourse.

He could have done so in order to point out that one can be homosexual and nevertheless entitled to be part of the Native society .

Qwo-Li Driskill states that “The fact that he links sex between two men to his sacred traditions as a Native person certainly rocks the boat of Native people buying into homophobia and Puritanical sexual notions” (230).

So, the message of this poem could also be seen in connection with ‘individual healing’, although - in this case - the remedy in fact concerns many homosexual Natives.

In addition to linking sexual intercourse with Native culture and ceremony, the Canadian poet also incorporates the surrounding landscape and fauna of Northern America into some of his poems concerned with homosexuality.

[...]



[1] Scofield, Gregory. “The Gathering - Stones for the Medicine Wheel”. Vancouver: Polestar, 1993; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Scofield Gathering.

[2] Halfe, Louise. “Bear Bones & Feathers”. Regina: Coteau Books, 1994; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Halfe.

[3] Payne, Brenda. “A Really Good Brown Girl: Marilyn Dumont’s Poems of Grief and Celebration”. (Ad)dressing our Words: Aboriginal Perspectives on Aboriginal Literatures. Ed. Armand Garnet Ruffo. Pentincton: Theytus Books, 2001. 135 - 142; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Payne.

[4] Driskill, Qwo-Li. “Two Spiritness, the Erotic, and Mixedblood Identity as Sites of Sovereignty and Resistance in Gregory Scofield’s Poetry”. Speak to Me Words: Essays on Contemporary American Indian Poetry. Eds. Dean Rader & Janice Gould. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003. 222 - 234; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Driskill.

[5] Episkenew, Jo-Ann. “Contemporary Indigenous Literatures in Canada: Healing from Historical Trauma”.

[6] Richards, Linda. “Interview: Gregory Scofield”. September 1999. January 9th 2009

<http://januarymagazine.com/profiles/scofield.html.>; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Richards.

[7] Scudeler, June. “The Song I Am Singing: Gregory Scofields Interweavings of Métis, Gay and Jewish Selfhoods”. Studies in Canadian Literature 31.1 (2006): 129 - 145; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Scudeler.

[8] Scofield, Gregory. “Native Canadiana”. Vancouver: Polestar, 1997; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Scofield Canadiana.

[9] Andrews, Jennifer. “Irony, Métis Style: Reading the Poetry of Marilyn Dumont and Gregory Scofield”. 9th January 2009 <http://www.uwo.ca/english/canadianpoetry/cpjrn/vol50/andrews.htm>; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Andrews Irony.

[10] Andrews calls this “in-between status” (Irony 6).

[11] Scofield, Gregory. “Love Medicine and One Song”. Vancouver: Polestar, 1997; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Scofield Medicine.

[12] Scudeler reveals that the native community is characterised by “homophobia” (130). Scofield certainly tries to create openness and acceptance by writing about this topic.

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