“Ode to Northern Alberta” – Billy-Ray Belcourt

Image: Canada Day, posted at Flickr by Kurt Bauschardt under a Creative Commons License.

Why do we return to the places that most want to grind our bones to nothing? “Ode to Northern Alberta” is an anti-hymnal for a psychogeography. It is a record one makes of the ruins. Like many of my favourite things, it ends at the beginning, with the account of the speaker’s mooshum running away from a Joussard residential school in the 1950s, returning “despite knowing / heaven is nowhere near here”. Belcourt leaves the poem unpunctuated in its ending, and nothing could be more fitting: I feel the void suggested by this maw. I feel the speaker’s mooshum tracing his steps back to the site of unfathomable dislocation, because nowhere else smells like the kind of survival he can understand. It isn’t only that we keep coming back because we can’t help ourselves in rational terms. We return because of blood dependency, too, because of the unwritten contract we make with a place when we’re given to it, without our say-so.

This spare, whittled poem burns its own fuel to keep itself going, and yet is laden with a richness of images, each of which could be the kindling for whole new poems. Witness:

“cree girls gather in the bush
and wait for the future.
in the meantime
they fall in love with the trees
and hear everything.”

We know then, how the poem ends. How does it begin? With an open-palmed declaration of pain, stamped on the features of the traveller returning home, like a passport: “here, no one is birthed / only pieced together.” Don’t look to this ode to sustain your belief in ultimate redemption from anything, for stories of local boys made good under arid conditions and desperate sufferances. There’s love here, but it costs. There’s love to live on, but is this love a worthy residence?

Read “Ode to Northern Alberta” here.
Billy-Ray Belcourt’s debut collection of poems, This Wound is a Worldis the winner of the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize.

This is the twelfth installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.