The “Self” and Biography as Decolonial Storytelling in Brandi Bird’s I Am Still Too Much

During the fall of 2020, graduate students in the Ryerson University English Department’s Literatures and Modernity program worked on digital criticism projects that reflected on Indigenous literature in Canada and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Stephanie Rico’s Medium bog.

Brandy Bird is a Two-Spirit Saulteaux and Cree poet. Bird grew up on Treaty 1 territory in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They are currently living and learning on Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh land. Their work has been published in Poetry is Dead, Pearls and is forthcoming in Prism. Their debut chapbook, I Am Still Too Much, is a work highly concerned with place and family and was written with the prairies always in heart and mind (Rahila’s Ghost Press, https://rahilasghostpress.com/portfolio/i-am-still-too-much-by-brandi-bird/).

INTRODUCTION

I am still

too heavy for the wind to take me

anywhere. I am still too much.

— Brandi Bird, “19”

Brandy Bird’s debut chapbook, I Am Still Too Much, is a clear, beautiful and honest vision of the prairies delivered by a contemporary voice that lingers long after the end of the book’s thirty-seven pages. With each poem, Bird distinguishes and constructs two distinct spaces: the prairies of Manitoba and the urban landscape of Vancouver. The grasslands and straits of the prairies in the first half of the collection gradually transition into the jagged coastlines of Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh land. The movement between these two spaces, shown by the structural order of the poems, represents the tension of being pulled between two spaces and places, both familiar and unfamiliar. For Bird, this tension in the collection forces new meanings of home and belonging. Therefore, it is a work deeply invested in the connections, and underlying tensions, between geography, territory, space, and identity in what is currently known as Canada. Through their use of the “self” and biography, Bird extends an invitation to their reader to hear the stories and knowledges held within their book and to take what they have learned and move it forward. The various intersections and connections that they construct and deconstruct throughout their work further point to the importance of applying Indigenous thought and theory to other disciplines, forms of art and knowledge. Hence, Bird’s collection resists and refuses to exist solely for their reader’s entertainment and consumption. As we begin to discuss their work, it is necessary to consider their poem “I remember and don’t remember many things that aren’t for you” which asks: “And is this a story for you? / Is this a memory?” (Bird 35). Bird asks their reader to look inwards and remind themselves that the collection means to offer something else — and for someone else.

THE “SELF” AND BIOGRAPHY

To the Creator of our mouths,

we speak in unison. Come forward

any witness, come forward

any believer.

— Brandi Bird, “4”

Bird’s handle on narrative is unmistakably powerful. The dynamic and multiple stories and voices lifting off the pages afford us critical insights into how Bird approaches the themes of trauma, healing, their body, and the state through narrative. Throughout the collection, Bird’s use of the “self” and biography functions as a form of decolonial storytelling. From start to finish, the “self” simultaneously speaks for the individual and on behalf of the collective. It expresses both the complex personhood of Bird, as a Two-Spirit Indigenous person, and the grounded normativity and knowledges of their communities. As a result, Bird presents both an individual and an inter-generational perspective to address the various manifestations of colonial violence and how they reproduce in the structures of Canadian institutions to limit Indigenous sovereignty and governance. From the perspective of a collective voice, Bird’s poem “Post-Contact” speaks to the intergenerational and widespread violence done onto their communities by settler colonialism. More specifically, it illustrates the violent genocide of Indigenous children, women and animals with the phrases: “[f]ire of synapses;” “from the flame comes a child with a black mouth;” “industry pulsing in the necks of caribou, moose, women;” and the question, “What bodies are these?” (Bird 27). Importantly, Bird describes these scenes in the present tense. They reinsert the truth of these events of colonial violence and trauma as ongoing, rather than isolated moments of a forgotten past. Moreover, Bird’s use of dark and violent imagery throughout the poem presents an alternative perspective — an Indigenous perspective — of Canadian history and the hegemonic systems of settler colonialism. From this viewpoint, Bird redefines what it means in a Canadian context to think of the words: “Alberta,” “Lady Victoria” and “nation” (27). They are neither symbols of greatness, glory nor goodness, but of genocide, violence and dispossession.

Although the collection engages with the themes of trauma, violence and the state, it is equally interested in amplifying joy through the representation of Indigenous kinship and Indigenous governance and sovereignty. We learn from Bird’s use of “self” and biography the different ways that their communities practice kinship towards one another and the universe. For one, the motif of pickerel that appears in the poems “Marriage à la façon du pays” and “Pickerel” exemplifies how Bird’s communities relate to the land and the natural resources that gather on the straits of Manitoba. The speakers of these poems describe the tradition of “weaving nets,” “fishing pickerel” and an image of a mother “cutting pickerel into short strips / on the kitchen table” to smoke and “hang for winter” (Bird 18, 33). The significance and beauty of these descriptions stem from their double function as both resurgent and educational tools. One, they offer the intended reader a sort of step-by-step guide on how to fish, treat and store pickerel; and second, they demonstrate how Bird and their communities relate and practice kinship towards the specific ecosystem of their territory. As a result, Bird foregrounds the sacredness of different seasons, resources and the use of storytelling for learning and for passing down practices and traditions over generations.

Moving forward, Bird uses the “self” and biography to navigate the difficulties of a balanced representation of both trauma and beauty and how they occupy space in the chapbook. One of the primary ways that Bird achieves this is through their control of narrative and other literary techniques. As the chapbook progresses, Bird’s “I/Me” speaker is not a static presence but undergoes fragmentation and reinvention as the central themes of trauma, healing and the body find expression in nature, a source of ongoing inspiration throughout the poems. Bird exemplifies this notion in the first poem of the collection titled “At My Grandma’s Funeral,” with the lines: “I see / myself fractured in the ripples” (9). Their use of enjambment, along with the natural characteristics of ripples in water, creates a sense of fragmentation and distortion that Bird then applies to how the speaker perceives themself. However, from this fragmentation comes clarity. The following line: “I see myself” suggests an entirely new perspective born out of the action of the ripples (9). This cycle of fragmentation and reinvention puts forth notions of circularity that are central to the collection: ripples become peaks, peaks become waves, waves become still waters. Furthermore, these notions of circularity assist to balance the representation of trauma and beauty by the ways that they trace the chapbook’s overarching narrative. The earlier motifs of erosion, deterioration and death shift towards ones of growth, nurturing and futurity. Bird creates this transition in their narrative to honour the beauty and healing that can arise from inter-generational experiences with trauma and violence. This shift culminates in the final stanza of the chapbook’s closing poem, “Selkirk, Manitoba:”

The body

of the town a rose bush, a dry thicket,

a target for lightning strikes,

waiting to catch fire and begin again (Bird 37, emphasis mine).

Here, the motif of “fire” transitions from its earlier connotations of destruction and death to growth and fertility. The fertile soil left by the bush fire creates a haven for regeneration and regrowth, thus providing the strength and nourishment to move forward and “begin again” (Bird 37).

Stephanie Rico

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