Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent
Patriarchal European settlers were shocked by the egalitarian nature of many First Nations peoples, mistaking a lack of hierarchal structure for primitiveness and chaos. One of the epigraphs to Liz Howard’s debut collection, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent—simply, “so violent an ecstasy”—is a quote from Paul LeJeune, a 17th century Jesuit missionary who travelled from France to what is now known as Québec to begin his religious and educational work among the First Nations. Mapping out a text the way a missionary might map out community structures is a tempting practice. To disassemble a work’s inner mechanisms and rearrange them piece by piece in a way that plays at cohesiveness can make for an effective review. But for digesting a work like Howard’s, which casts a hand over geographies, cartographies, and Cartesian coordinate systems alike, this approach proves oddly futile. Neural/natural landscapes, navigated with a compass whose needle is pulled by the magnetisms of intersecting identities, are explored organically throughout Howard’s collection. Howard lays the groundwork for a feminist ecosystem sown with seeds from several verdant spaces: colonial, ecological, cerebral, and emotional.
With a sharp philosophical mind, a massively specialized scientific vocabulary, and an eye for softness against even the grittiest textures, it is hard to neatly map out Infinite Citizen. Points of entry are as numerous as the synapses in the human brain, with the very concept of “infiniteness” being rooted into the foundation of the collection—slowly pulling it apart to create yet another space to germinate. The opening poem (“Terra Nova, Terraformed”) ends on the word “eternity” isolated on the page as if pulled from a stalk. If we are supposed to read the individual poems in the collection as a cohesive work, as Howard herself suggests, it also signals the beginning of a textual dialogue, a multivocal conversation that advances, draws back, and reassembles itself (sometimes quite literally, as is the case in “Ring Sample: Addendum,” a sonnet repurposing language found in the first 14 poems of the book).
As Emma Healey points out in the Globe and Mail, from the very first poem, Howard “plants her flag as a hybrid of nature and sound poet, plus something more complex,” something, I’d argue, more mystical. The speaker in “Terra Nova” pulls together threads of philosophy, ancestry, and the cosmos: “… in Venus retrograde / we coalesced into the Cartesian floral pattern / of heritage,” and then discovers a “highway for stars birthing themselves / out of pyroclastic dust and telepathy.” Poems like “Terra Nova” introduce an energetic tension into passages of heightened beauty through the sudden injection of an urban, poverty-laced grit. This is sustained throughout the collection and introduced early on: “fetal alcohol syndrome, oil drums sunk/to the bottom of every lake, the aurora borealis / an overdose along the magnetized pole.” In “Bildungsroman,” a later poem with a more confessional turn, the speaker thwarts the typical chronological structure of the coming-of-age narrative and revisits herself nonlinearly. At 19, the “sky opened onto [her] / simple face” as she reflects on “the / flagrant errors of any small / girl … guileless in speaking of what / happens my mother combing/through trash at the landfill.” At 12, the speaker is among “ravens and black bears,” sitting in the back of a flatbed truck. She then describes herself 15 years later sitting “in the innocuous / green of late summer,” with one foot on the curb, “the other on the roof / of the world’s mouth.” Whether it’s the stark surprise of a lumberjack’s pubic hair, a Sears catalogue, or a glimpse at a welfare duplex, such contrasts help to anchor a collection that can grow obscurant with specialized terminology and wildly dense with metaphors of a decolonized natural landscape.
By often finding herself with one foot on concrete, the other in the boreal forest, and her head in the rhetoric of neuroscience, Howard challenges the way we understand interior bodily spaces in relation to exterior environments throughout Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent. Howard’s poems can have the otherworldly effect of looking at a close up of the human eye alongside a picture of a nebula and recognizing a trace of our body mirrored in the universe. In “Standard Time,” the first of several poems by the same name appearing like a refrain throughout the collection, “[a]ll night the blood moon measures the dilation / of your pupil.” Many poems liken blood to other natural liquids; snow is “hemodynamic” and a river—much like a vein—is a “[s]anguine jet stream” flowing into “an estuary of blood and soy.” The speaker, navigating a “divisible world / at all hours culling a distemper of infinity,” tempers her scientist’s mind by leaving space for an untracked expansiveness even Wittgenstein, whose influence surfaces throughout the collection, can’t map mathematically. Being “blind / for believing science would find us / full and laughing,” the speaker turns to the Anishnaabe cosmology rooted in her identity as a mixed First Nations woman to guide her outside of her own head and into the joy of the shaking tent.
The very power of Infinite Citizen as a decolonial text arrives through the idea of citizenship in its infinitely fragmented iterations, a critique on the tenuousness of fixed identities and easy politics. “Sweet citizen,” the speaker says in the incredibly rich long poem “North by South,” “I know you / as I know myself: a fictive province / of selves.” Clearly distinguishing her “selves” as the trifecta of poet, scientist, and Anishinaabe, the cross-talk between these and other intersecting citizenships (woman, feminist, member of the welfare class) allows the poems to feel like a self-sustaining, nimble conversation. The cohabitation is key: each strain of dialogue is left intact, even if the coexistence is complicated. When asking “[i]s this an indigenous or occidental dream? / note the presence of wildlife / and anxiety about money,” the answer is that it is and can be both. Seemingly “conflicting” identities and clashing environments or not forced into some false reconciliation but are instead allowed room to breathe. The refusal to neatly regulate the selves is closely tied to the recurring “Standard Time” poems. Just as people can be colonized and a dominant language universalized, here “standard time” represents a sort of temporal erasure of local idiosyncrasies, rendering obsolete the use of solar times and locally chosen meridians. Taken from this angle, Howard’s poems represent a liberation; as the speaker asserts in “Thinktent,” nothing is more freeing than “[teasing] a thread of being / from its moment in standard time.” While the teasing of these threads can be exhausting, and grappling with multiple selves darkly futile, Infinite Citizen soars with an assertive sense of hope and selfhood, as in this passage from “North by South”:
our only limit
will be of language
my carry-on could be your carry-on
only I am not a corpse
I am a citizen
I tie a knot
around the throat of all knowledge
insist I know
where my own body was
when the whole earth retired
when presented with history in the form of an ellipsis
I must continue
Revisiting the life of the 17th century Jesuit, the special thing about Paul LeJeune was his eagerness to learn and encourage other missionaries to learn various Native languages. Howard rubs up against the margins of what language can and cannot do throughout Infinite Citizen, even providing readers with a Anishinaabemowin glossary at the end of the book. To leave the Anishinaabemowin words untranslated would risk alienating the reader, and to remove them would be an act of cultural erasure. Howard’s compromise acknowledges the coexistence of both her settler and First Nation heritage, with her poems standing testament to the porousness of the self. The fragmentation of identities makes the collection difficult to map, as it refutes regular structural systems, resists ordering and reordering, all without falling into chaos. On the contrary, Howard’s command of languages—dialects of scientific jargon, ecological beauty, Anishinaabemowin, bleak poverty, and others—is so authoritative that she leaves space leftover to critique its limits. No matter which way the reader decides to enter, Howard’s tent is shaking, violent, and ecstatic.