Anima Canadensis by Sonnet L’Abbé
Birthdays, as a ritual, function by celebrating the existence of one stable thing that takes its place as an object. When we celebrate Canada’s birthday, we are celebrating the existence of one country. However, there is always an ethical question of whose existence comprises the diverse nation of Canada we are asked to celebrate; moreover, there is also an ethical question to praising the singularity of a national identity over the various cultural pluralities it tries to homogenize.
A homogenized Canadian identity that foregoes cultural difference for national unity has been seen in various government projects. Take, for example, the commemorative currency which aims to highlight “our” wonders, achievements, and passions, or the National Film Board of Canada’s 1 Nation 4 Lenses that explores what “we” protect, seek, and call home. The cult of the singular over the plural has been seen historically throughout Canada in the processes of settler colonialism that have attempted to erase, assimilate, and culturally sanitize Indigenous peoples of Canada—all attempts arbitrarily justified by an artificial definition of a “Canadian identity” or singular essence. From The Indian Act to the residential school system, colonial policies have long backed a singular hegemonic identity.
Canada 150 also assumes one group alone as its identity. That’s what Sonnet L’Abbé’s Anima Canadensis questions.
Sonnet L’Abbé recently collaborated with Junction Books to publish Anima Canadensis, her first chapbook. The publication date closely preceded Canada’s recent 150th birthday. Anima Canadensis can be read as an alternate theory of Canada’s identity. The title could be translated as “the breath of Canada,” to signify a fluid, open, and changing identity. Instead of accepting that an essence is fixed, rigid, or hierarchal, this work conceptualizes a Canadian identity that is always in movement—whose place ephemerally unfolds in the space of the present. This work maps a Canadian identity that glides within an eternal current or unfolds pieces of itself as petals endlessly carved within a bloom. This work is a critique of the way Canadian identity has been localized by policies of settler colonialism.
It makes sense to suggest that this work is rooted in roots, as many poems in this chapbook explore ethical implications of a settler aspiration to be “the biggest branch” by “putt[ing] down roots” in a land already rooted. The rhizome makes its appearance in L’Abbé’s work before you even open the chapbook. The cover image is a barren tree sprung from roots, yet when you turn the book upside down, the roots themselves turn into the tree and the tree turns into the roots. It’s a rhizome disguised as the root-tree. The root-tree implies a correspondence between the signifier (root) and signified (tree), whereas in the rhizome, the signifiers branch off, and thereby signify, in unpredictable ways. This work orients itself against hierarchies created by the root-tree image, working against traditional semiotic systems predicated on privileged signs.
Anima Canadensis puts forth a Canadian identity that, like a breath, is constantly interrogating itself. This interrogation is divided into two parts. The first section, “Permanent Residents’ Test,” interrogates settlers’ relationship with the land and with Indigenous groups who originally occupied them. It might be fair to characterize this interrogation as a national critique of how settlers have come to establish a relationship with the land and the political consequences bringing forth that relationship.
It makes sense to suggest that this work is rooted in roots, as many poems in this chapbook explore ethical implications of a settler aspiration to be ‘the biggest branch’ by ‘putt[ing] down roots’ in a land already rooted.
“Permanent Residents’ Test,” a finalist for the CBC award in poetry and the poem that gave its name to the section, aims to subvert the way a Euro-Canadian attitude has pressured Indigenous people to justify the legitimacy of their existence, both present and past, in a land that they have always occupied. Instead, “Permanent Residents’ Test” asks settlers to prove the legitimacy of their existence in a land illegally inherited by “prov[ing] their ability to sustain” and “to love.” Settlers, whom the speaker addresses, must prove the way they will occupy the land: whether they will accept “the will to keep, to keep on, to go on, to sustain” or if they will slip into the colonial impulse to “keep order” over lands and peoples that have never belonged to them.
In other tests designed to interrogate settlers’ relationships with a land that they occupy, we are asked to identify native species within a prose-poem passage patterned with scientific processes and names. Throughout the prose-poem, the speaker—who seems like a settler—establishes a relationship to the land, not based on knowledge of native species around them, but rather on a scientific discourse (itself a branch of a larger Western discourse) that has re-patterned the species within the landscape they occupy. The speaker even admits that the “green shapes [are] nameless,” and the entire passage is filled with words like “thujaplicin” and “anastomosis,” a scientific diction. If it is hard to distinguish the scientific processes from the native species in the passage, as was my experience, it is probably because we have become so disconnected from the land that knowledge of native species becomes drowned in a larger Western scientific discourse.
The second section of the chapbook, “Love amid the Angloculture,” contrasts the first section by interrogating an individual’s relationship with the land, rather than the larger theme of settlers. This section is narrower and more personal in scope, employing some poems set in lined verse instead of the prose-poems in the first section. In poems like “Hue,” the metaphor of human as a tree is used to deconstruct an opposition between trees and humans, ultimately suggesting that there is no clear sense in which we are ever entirely separated from the land and species within it. Nature itself “come[s] in, move[s] out of the lungs,” as we are perpetually holding and letting it go. Other poems like “Affection” liken the stem of the human nervous system, including “[nerves, [brain, [interpellated skin]]]” to the stems of a tree, indicated by the clever use of brackets joining the words in a stem-like manner.
This work delicately offers two ways of interrogating a hierarchical Canadian identity—both ways of entering roped against and between each other like vines.
However, the most important poem of the second section is arguably “Brain,” where the metaphor of human-as-tree continues as we are asked to consider the ethical implications of how we ground ourselves, and to whose land we ground ourselves. The speaker states:
From the stem
At the base of my head
I send down roots
To taste the soil.
This metaphor suggests that it is perhaps the flower which acts as the human head, but we know that flowers are the products of roots. Yet the flower is what creates the roots in this passage. There is no clear sense in which the speaker is grounded if it is the bloom which makes the root rather than the root which makes the bloom. These stems root on the surface of a bed that “speaks Kutenai, / speaks Salishan,” deconstructing a personal relationship with nature or the land.
What this poem—and the chapbook as a whole—offers is a subtle deconstruction between an interrogation of the land from the larger perspective of settlers and the smaller perspective of the individual. It is within this interstice that a Canadian identity, or breath, is found. There is no apolitical rooting of an individual settler on a land that has already been rooted. Even within a settler’s individual relationship with the land, there is always the permanent residue of settler colonialism. That residue refigures the settler’s apolitical relationship, and this is what we should take from the work as a whole. This work delicately offers two ways of interrogating a hierarchical Canadian identity—both ways of entering roped against and between each other like vines.
L’Abbé is a gifted poet whose technical skill sharpens the theorization of Canada’s identity and what it could be, opposed to what it is commonly taken for. She gives readers the opportunity to “step into [her] space just to sit with authentic mastery.”