Reading Mary Barnes’ poetry collection, What Fox Knew, is a fascinating journey. It is epic in scope, delightfully composed, and rich in detail. Set in the Southern Georgian Bay area, the characters and their chronicles reveal a deep past of First Nations peoples which shapes the poet’s vision and her narrative. Barnes’ words create images and sentiments that flow onto the page, living and breathing and true to life.
The collection opens with the poem, “Come to the River,” inviting the reader to enter the world where, “The voice calls./ Come sit on the flat rock/ and watch as water glides over/ these ancient stones.” The reader is drawn into the enchantment of nature personified. But the voice of the river and the tranquility of the landscape is soon juxtaposed to another voice, as the poet recalls a life lived in the fallout of a colonized, racialized and sexualized world: “Forget the day/ on the school bus/ when the boy with/ the white teeth snapped/ out brown girl/ as if the words were/ something dirty to be bleached/ cleansed and rinsed.”
What begins with school children’s cruel taunts turns to violence in the heart-wrenching poem “Regeneration” which echoes the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women: “Daughter, I am the Woman murdered./ I am the Woman dragged from the/ mean streets, from sunlit parks and the waterfronts./ I am the one they took into the woods/ and flung in the cold, unrelenting water.” Barnes seeks to give voice to countless thousands who have none. The poem ends with courage: “Tell the stars I am coming./ Tell the moon to light my way.” Consistent with Barnes’ language of optimism and forgiveness, the poems invite tolerance as a path to peace— resonant in the hope for truth and reconciliation.
Barnes’ poetry is not political for the sake of politics. Her words are deeply felt, revealing the responses of the human heart. Some of the poems are witty, as “In the Yellow Afternoon,” where she paints a heartwarming scene from her childhood, expecting to be scolded for ripping up a fancy dress. Instead, her mother, busy mending the dress, is unable to scold her, as “…her mother’s mouth/ is full of pins.” Another poem, “If You Stood on the Hill” depicts a family that lives through the memory of the tragedy of a boy who drowned in the river.
The poem, “Expectations,” is vividly imaginative, depicting children bathing in a washbasin that had to be carried into the house and the children imagining it as, “…a boat for their voyage/ the black and grey tiled floor their sea./The vessel now ashore holds a lemon tree/ the seed planted when the children grew up and moved on.” The poem ends with emphasis on the importance of a family legacy and the life they shared, or in Barnes’ words, “…to the place where they will think of/ what they’d carried between them.” And some are poignantly reflective, as in “The Visit,” where she converses with “…a room full of poets/ who sit on painted green shelves./ …Tonight Hardy, Eliot, Boland and Lorca arrive,/ …their words like shadows on the wall.”
In “Nottawasaga Bay Morning”, Barnes invites the reader to enter the life of trees, clouds, and the sky, and to join her in acknowledging that we are all part of the natural world, or in her words, “…a part of the Great Mystery/ the Creator/ Kitchi-Manitou.”
Barnes vividly layers existential questions and quests within her Ojibwa ancestry, drawn from family history and meditations on the human condition. Ranging from reflective to tragic, from witty to spiritual to sensual, the poems inhabit that volatile place between the public and the private, making What Fox Knew, a must read for anyone contemplating the world we live in, and most of all the matters of the heart envisaged in this thoroughly engaging debut collection.
What Fox Knew
by Mary Barnes
At Bay Press, November, 2019, 136 pp., $19.95
Bianca Lakoseljac is a novelist, poet, short story writer and essayist. Her latest novel, Stone Woman, (Guernica Editions) won the Book Excellence Award 2017 for Fiction. Bianca is the recipient of the Matthew Ahern Memorial Award in literature at York University. www.biancalakoseljac.ca