My poem, “Rebellion Box”, is a sestina and the title piece of my debut poetry collection, which is due out with Radiant Press in spring 2023. I first learned about rebellion boxes while attending a lecture by historian Allan McGillivray at the Uxbridge Museum. These boxes were carved out of stove wood by men who’d been imprisoned at Fort Henry as a result of their involvement in the 1837 Rebellion. The boxes often included personal inscriptions.
To be honest, I’m surprised I remember anything about what was said in the lecture. Not because it wasn’t interesting—it was, obviously—but because I had my eight-month-old daughter with me who was interested in everything except sitting quietly on my lap. I remember sweating with embarrassment while other attendees either gave me the stink-eye or sympathetically pursed-lipped looks.
But the story of rebellion boxes did manage to stick with me. Not because I have any great knack for historic details, but because of the love story behind one particular box: the one Joseph Gould—a founding member of Uxbridge, Ontario—crafted for the woman he loved, Mary. Priopriety at the time made it so Joseph couldn’t communicate directly with Mary, so he instead wrote to Mary’s mother, sending her the box and obliquely inquiring after his love interest.
The story of Joseph and Mary floated around my mind for a year or so. I suspect my fascination with it extended beyond enjoying a good romance and was rooted more firmly in my interest in examining the mores and values that bind us—an interest that can likely be traced back to my own identity as a biracial and bicultural woman. I’ve often felt, especially as a young adult, almost unbearable tension between what I want and what I am allowed to do. Who I am allowed to be.
So when I had time, I did more research on the 1837 Rebellion and Joseph and Mary. I knew I wanted to write a poem because so much prose had been written about Joseph Gould and I didn’t see how I could add to it in any interesting way.
Also, prose would require a level of sustained historical research I was not prepared to undertake.
Also, love and poetry are a no-brainer combination. One of the most influential love poets I’ve ever encountered is Petrarch. He wrote many poems to Laura—the object of his unrequited affection. While thinking about “Rebellion Box”, I imagined Joseph wondered if his love was returned since—while Joseph would eventually end up with Mary—he was in prison. Who knew if Mary would wait for him? Who knew for certain the extent of her affection and if it would remain consistent?
I started to think about how awful it must have felt, to be so young and in love and impotent. To be limited in your ability to even express how you feel because of familial and societal expectations.
In the end, the confining image of the box and the rigid sestina form made sense, though I would not have been able to articulate this sense at the time. I wouldn’t have been able to say I picked the sestina because Petrarch also used this form to write of his frustrations in love. These things aligned unconsciously. It was only later I could pick them out.
What I knew at the time I wrote the poem was that I couldn’t get my thoughts straight and I have always gravitated to form to force my thoughts into order. When my mind is unruly, form poetry helps me plot a course to coherent expression. So I’m pleased that the form of “Rebellion Box” works on multiple levels, but I have to admit: I can’t help but feel as if this synchronicity has little to do with intention.
Hollay Ghadery is a multi-genre writer living in rural Ontario on Anishinaabe land. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her work has appeared in various literary journals and magazines. Fuse, her memoir of mixed-race identity and mental illness, was published by Guernica Editions’ MiroLand imprint in 2021. Her debut collection of poetry, Rebellion Box, is due out with Radiant Press in spring 2023 and her short-fiction collection, Widow Fantasies, is scheduled for release with Gordon Hill Press in 2024.