Wandering Sovereignty: The Trickster Figure and Culture Hero 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 the US and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Eli Burley’s Medium bog.

Anyone who writes poetry is in one way or another telling a story about change. In crafting a poem, the raw materials of language are translated into art that distills (and is distilled through) space, breath, sound, time, memory, voice, and meaning. Brandi Bird’s 2019 chapbook I Am Still Too Much (Rahila’s Ghost Press) is one with a special relationship to these forces that make transformation possible and impossible. As a Two-Spirit poet who is Cree, Saulteaux, and Métis, Bird has an intimate connection with the many landscapes of Manitoba’s Treaty 1 territory as well as the delicate, ever-shifting landscape of selfhood under late capitalism.

In “Ode to Nanabush” Bird addresses an important Anishinaabe deity, exploring these connections alongside the mythological tradition of the trickster figure and the culture hero. “Mother, Father, bingo caller/ Friday nights on Peguis First/Nation. Call out to me,” Bird begins, summoning the many networks of kinship and collective consciousness that fix and emancipate the self in a constant state of becoming. Nanabush is a shapeshifter, an entity who slyly embodies contradictions, a being with many forms, as mercurial as nature itself. As a culture hero, Nanabush also carries their world and culture forward through acts of discovery and invention. While embracing a spirit of celebration, Bird’s ode speaks to this as a position of simultaneous liberation and stuckness, of both deep, inertia-inducing expectation and secret potential.

The poem also addresses the towering responsibility of keeping tradition and how it too has a way of shapeshifting. In the model of Nanabush Bird finds the restorative possibilities of escape, convalescence, and radical joy. They write:

You/are Neolithic, red ochred, eaten/as I say my name aloud/with the shadow of artifice/against a white screen. Will I/find you listening? In the bottom/of my can of beer, drinking/you in, a snare. I know the rez/was a prison first and then a home/in name, if not in body, if not/in my hands. Were you a prisoner// too? Or did you slide in moon/-light over fences, over walls, over/city girls awake at 3AM, the ones/like me who aren’t like prophets,/who never remember their dreams

“Ode to Nanabush”reveals that memory is always a form of holding and then opens up all the implications of what holding means. As the title of the collection suggests, there’s rarely ever a sense of I am for Bird’s speakers without the nagging sense of too much following close behind. Like anything that talks about holding, meanwhile, I Am Still Too Much just as fluidly refers to letting go.

Another poem, “Manitoba”,adds to this complex understanding of closeness and exchange, recognizing that self-creation is often just as much about migration as it is about being grounded. The poemconcludes, “The straits of Manitou,/off the falsifiable horizon/of the Red River Valley,/are written on my father’s/back — a hydrography… A father/in an ice floe. A father as water,/faceless in the riverbed. Melting/like a body into another/body and coursing north/like all rivers here.” What the individual’s body remembers in I Am Still Too Much is just as often what the speaker’s ancestors and the landscape they inhabit remembers. Bird seems to know more than anyone that who you are is who and what you carry (or choose not to carry) on your back. “Manitoba”alsoalludes to the ways remembrance and honoring the past can be about acknowledging transience, ephemerality, and movement. Unlike colonial histories built on hostile archives, bookkeeping, and coercive systems of settlement, Bird’s is mapped out in a more inclusive, wandering set of self-evident sovereignties. The records they encounter are written in water and geologic deep time, inscribed on all the faces and bodies of human and natural relations that melt together.

The collection’s entanglement with stories and the traces of things that make them also allows it to touch an untouchable kind of evidence. Bird’s work constantly interrogates the things silence can say. “King Tide” for exampleends with the lines, “The ocean erodes what is man-made, what is upkept, what is mild. This new year is a territory with a name I can’t speak. It’s not mine to tell.” Here indigenous futurity is moored to cycles of erosion and reconstruction engendered by what is witnessed and what remains hidden. Here and many times elsewhere in the book, Bird tells the reader something by choosing not to tell.

This profound connection between privacy, agency, and stewardship over family history is especially pronounced in “Eat Your Elders”as well as “I remember and don’t remember many things that aren’t for you”In the first, another evocative title alerts the reader to a profound link between hunger and preservation (self or otherwise), which carries throughout I Am Still Too Much. Bird goes on to write:

To the Creator of our mouths,/we speak in unison. Come forward/any witness, come forward any believer. I lay back, pluck/the sun out like an eye/and eat my share of meat/in the dark. The heat/of my hands is a reminder/that all things are alive: a mourning/of bodies, a confess of fungus,/a commune of eggs. All things can/be eaten.

“Eat Your Elders” is delivered in a deeply mindful tone that mixes defiance and vulnerability. Here the nourishing interconnectedness of all living beings is juxtaposed with a hunger to be seen and recognized in terms of a distinct identity. The poem is vigorously grateful for divine provisions that sustain life, but at the same time has the courage to ask for more than just survival. At the center of it is a call, a plea, a command, a challenge, and a promulgation all combined.

The trickster and the culture hero are figures who demonstrate the magic of vital speech acts, but also ones of mischief and fabulation. In “I remember and don’t remember many things that aren’t for you”these dynamics combine in a poem about the perverse pleasure of oversharing trauma and the perverse pleasure of keeping it to one’s self. In it, Bird writes:

A slap heard in the shack/my grandpa built. My mother on the floor//on Christmas Eve, nursing her cheek/and her Pyrex cup of Pepsi and whiskey standing/untouched on the kitchen table. I remember/her shock as I remember the look on my grandpa’s//face as he built the shack. Which is to say I don’t/remember it at all. I wrote this/as if it happened because it could’ve/and maybe did but not while I//was there. And is this a story for you?/Is this a memory? I remember/and don’t remember many things/that aren’t for you. This is one of them

Memory has a way of playing tricks on the speaker and the reader simultaneously in I Am Still Too Much. When the duty to remember and the joy of imaginative production meet careful impulses towards protection, the result is a story that bears witness but won’t apologize for keeping its secrets. At times hesitant in voice, but always unshaken in its convictions, I Am Still Too Much becomes a book about the precarious balancing act of finding the sacred in having, sharing, and being just enough.

Eli Burley

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