He Thinks It’s Their First Book
(The Cree Syllabary was authored by James Evans,
missionary, at Playgreen Lake, Manitoba, 1840)
When he carves
his hands surprise him,
their greed for the oak:
hoar of bark, orbit
of heartwood, core of pith.
His palms are callused,
on the eggshell smoothness
of the blessed pages,
on the oxblood leather
of his Bible,
blood of the Lamb.
He spilled his own,
nicked his thumb
on the wood as he freed
its tongue. He believes
he will free their tongues,
his flock, with his book.
whose name means
the exact people,
the intransigence of the Company
who forbid the printing press
at his mission,
who thinks it best that Indian minds
be frozen like prairie lakes
in the vice of winter.
the snub of Bible Societies who deem
his ‘heathen’ alphabet substandard.
Though bur oak is hard as granite,
the letters rise, bit by bit, beneath
his penknife, as native sounds
formed in his mouth months before,
at first imperfect, half-born.
These letters more than letters,
their simple shapes sing
this place: goose neck, owl’s beak,
moose track, warbler’s wing,
round of heel, curl of canoe.
On the next day, he creates paper:
the lining of birch trees, immaculate— like the soul of an infant—gathered,
flattened and dried in a press
once used for hides. (He showed them too
how to build proper homes, abandon
those lodges of sticks and skins, thrown
together at random angles.)
His ink a concoction of fish oil and soot,
he blackens the faces of the signs,
the cells of the wood drink his elixir in.
At last he inscribes the characters
line by line, a syllabic system
a bright Cree would learn in a week.
Their minds break free,
like rivers in a sudden thaw;
they speak of him in whispers: the man
who makes birch bark talk.
They recite the commandments
in order, one to ten; they know
Our Father will forgive them
again and again. And the men
follow him in his tin canoe
through the roar of Metachanais
rapids to deliver the Truth
—their grandchildren will stand silent in
the laundry room at No. 17 residential school—
now they can sing,
the light in their eyes,
The year of jubilee is come
Return, ye ransomed sinners, home.
The Last Book (Ottawa, 2046)
It lies in repose in the parliamentary library
(unfit for the senate chamber or hall
Not many bother to say farewell.
I come by to escape the party
for us staff at the Public Archives,
replaced by a database
the size of an eyelash,
a customized library,
just beneath the skin
on the inside of the wrist.
Nobody keeps vigil.
Shelves bereft of volumes
stretch, aimless, to gothic windows,
the glass chalk-white
like the lithe Queen Victoria grasping
her marble sword in the corner.
I would place my hands, liver-spotted,
on the acrylic case, but for alarms.
Bell jar. Transparent sepulchre.
Pages the hue of tea-soaked linen,
thick between fingers like communion
wafers, or so I remember.
Letters for this Cree syllabary peculiar
to me at first: tilted triangles, capsized E’s,
inverted U’s, curled hieroglyphs,
birds’ feet in the snow. Yet my body
knows them like bone and skin—
if I could coax them off the page,
cup them for a moment in my palms,
I know I could feel them
shape-shifting, soot tethers lifting,
heading for the supple flesh
of northern birches.