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Gabriel’s Beach by Neal McLeod

Gabriel’s Beach

Reviewed by Joanna M. Weston

McLeod uses the phrasing and cadence of his Cree people. The language resonates with the long history of the culture and deprivations of Canada’s First Nations. He brings together the watershed experience of Batoche, the courage of his grandfather Gabriel on Juno Beach, and his own growth through alcoholic addiction to find himself a mature adult.

The stories are told in simple language that reveals a clear literary power. While McLeod writes of contemporary society, his marriage and racism, the uniting theme is his mos?m (grandfather) Gabriel’s involvement in the battle of Juno Beach. He explores and extends Gabriel’s part in the battle, using it as the focal point for his own and his people’s experience.

Thus in “Sleeping on Gabriel’s Beach” (15), he writes “exploding shells / become stars // my eyes close the sky.” Gunfire becomes stars against which he closes his eyes. Then, he dreams:

cold hollow breaths
hands sweat
flashes of rolling hills
parkland forests
through his mind …

I awoke
coughed sand
from Gabriel’s beach
lost myself
in still eternity
(17-18)

War and the forests of his childhood come together in the dream until he comes to a longed-for peace upon waking. The battle absorbs his attention but always “Gabriel turned the darkness // of bloody sand // into a quiet hard stillness” (“Tigers” 20).

McLeod tells the stories of his people, giving them a rhythmic voice made for reading aloud. There are the stories of Mos?m Pacinis at Batoche in 1885, of the Red Coats at Cutknife Hill in the same year, of the Blackfoot defeat by the Cree, and of how the Buffalo Child wakes the prairie grass. He describes how

our bodies tattooed
with land’s memories
with land speak, ask?wêwin
even though the stone is gone
the story lives on
old stories give our bodies shape
and guide the path of sound
like trees guiding the wind
(“Meditations of Paskwaw-Mostos Awasis” 38)

Images such as these — the reversal of how one understands the passage of the wind, that the trees guide rather than buffet — enrich McLeod’s poetry. And so too does his deep awareness of relationships, the “maps of kinship,” the “connecting lines” that reveal the importance of the extended family to the First Nations. His frequent use of the Cree language heightens the connection to his people, but unfortunately the extensive glossary of terms at the end of the book is somewhat incomplete.

McLeod is far from oblivious to contemporary society and its effect on his people. In “Wal-Mart Hustle” (73) he takes aim at the “cheap capitalist safari”; in “James Smith Hockey Arena” he tells how

bleachers gone now
dark inside
pockets of light
breaking through
like parkland nights
sky holds dark blue
like deep ocean
around me
(84)

and evokes the emptiness of a deserted arena, with the added sense of the large area of darkness within. He is sarcastic about white culture in “Casino Culture”:

white men play Indian
speak of their wolf dreams
wait anxiously for grand entry
but where the hell were they in 1885
when it wasn’t cool to be a neechi?
(86)

The final pages of the book contain McLeod’s “Words for my sons” (103-105), words that come from the heart:

… because I love you, and I want your life to be guided by
old thunderbirds. I want you to find the river again, the
river of our ancestors that flows through your bodies. …

He writes about his love for his wife and how he finds healing with her, but here he also evokes his dreams for the future of his people, and they are powerful.

The grammar is weak in places, and the images are occasionally repetitive, but the overall impression is of a poet who makes poetry out of the cruelty and racism experienced by Aboriginal peoples. He weaves the dreams and cultural ceremonies together in the rhythm and cadence of the First Nations of Canada.

Joanna M. Weston has had poetry, reviews, and short stories published in anthologies and journals for twenty years. Has two middle-readers, The Willow Tree Girl and Those Blue Shoes; also A Summer Father, poetry, published by Frontenac House of Calgary, all in print.