'you have to name the silence': Songs to Kill a Wîhtikow by Neal McLeod
Songs to Kill a Wîhtikow Neal McLeod. Regina: Hagios Press, 2005 ISBN: 0973556765
In his debut book, Songs to Kill a Wîhtikow, Neal McLeod speaks back to the darkness haunting us as individuals and collectivities. He courageously accomplishes a representation of this inhabitance of specters through a shifting sardonic, disdainful wit and deceptively simple humour in a volume that combines his poetry with plates of his visual art. The poems, like the images, elicit textured imaginings of the hurt and the degradation of collective dispossession and of personal losses that comprise a colonial legacy. But finally, Songs to Kill a Wîhtikow speaks to the sheer resiliency of the spirit in struggle against these oppressions.
This oppressive darkness enters McLeod's poetry most prominently in the titular figure of the wîhtikow. Wîhtikow is a cannibal. Antisocial in the extreme, the wîhtikow turns inward from society and consumes other beings for his own narrowly conceived benefit. Within his poetry and art, McLeod deploys the wîhtikow as a powerful metaphor for the greed and individualism consuming our society, which he describes as "the attempt to swallow the light from the sky of the world." But McLeod also connects wîhtikow directly with acts of colonialism and racism as in the concluding (and timely) juxtaposition of "Wîhtikow Wandering":
>cops who drive brothers
to cold places
in the grey, concrete forest
Among the Cree, wîhtikow stories are common. These stories emphasize the importance of sharing for collective survival, and contribute to the creation (and maintenance) of an egalitarian culture that restrains greed in pursuit of the common good. Contrary to the binaries inveighed by missionaries upon Indigenous communities, McLeod evokes an understanding of both good and evil dwelling in all things, including Christianity. Wîhtikow destroys social relations and upsets the order of things, but is also an important part of ourselves and of everyday relations. McLeod's poems challenge problematically strict binaries of good and evil, particularly interrupting the notion of evil as something eternal because it silences the reality that darkness â€“ the wîhtikow â€“ is embedded within us all: "my body / has also known / the fire of wîhtikow".
McLeod's poetry attempts to make sense of and transform this ever-present darkness through humour. He begins "Indian Love Poem" with a reversal reminiscent of the oft quoted Shakespearean sonnet: "her skin was golden brown / like KFC chicken." The invocation of branding as sardonic critique of (post)modern consumer culture is frequently deployed in the collection as it deals with contemporary modes of colonialism. The moment "when they opened KFC on the reserve" is treated humourously in a poem centered on the image of "Rez Dogz" eating "KFC bones." In "Suburban Castration", "suburban regularity" is mocked for its mundane rigidity as "Safeway savings cards" are aligned with "sex twice a week" in a landscape where "all the houses look the same / all the stories sound the same." Though these two poems maintain a light and witty tone, the intrusions of Safeway and KFC, like the more explicitly ominous "long steel lines [that] steal the sanctity of the earth," are registered as darkness, as "shadows / in a land polluted by a new presence." And, to be sure, the speaker in one poem declares, "I didn't want any fast food culture / shake and bake shamanism."
In his introduction, McLeod self-consciously fashions himself a wîhtikôhkan, or clown, following the storytelling tradition of his ancestors. McLeod translates "wîhtikôhkan" as an imitation of wîhtikow, a figure who opens spaces for healing through mimicry and reversal. His work interweaves picture and sound, giving form and name to the Wîhtikow that dwells within us all. After first identifying and exposing our poisons, McLeod dreams and sings of the potential to heal our wounds:
>to know the light
you have to pass
through the darkness
to know the words
you have to name the silence
It is through language and story that people come to know their place. However, in the distorted colonial landscape, knowing place has a different ontology. McLeod writes of the struggle for self-respect and awareness in this environment; and he writes of the fundamental disconnect that exists between our present society and the ground on which we stand. Through making light of the darkness, while holding the threads of memory from people of this land since time immemorial, McLeod presents new angles from which to understand his and our locations within the geography of our time.