Lisa Shatzky, in her introduction to her first book of poetry, calls her poems "terrible and sad" but also "human and necessary." She dedicates them "to all of Canada's First Nations' people who suffered at the hands of the Canadian Government's Residential School System." This began in the mid to late 1800's, when First Nations children were forcibly removed from their families, their homes, their customs and language to live in church-run boarding schools and continued for more than a century.
As a trauma therapist in contact with First Nations communities along the coast of British Columbia for seventeen years, Shatzky has listened to the stories of many people, and has "been inspired by their resilience and incredible sense of spirit."
Residential school survivors have told their own stories and that has been part of their healing. I realize, though, it's not their responsibility to educate people so as to let them know about the multigenerational impact of the suffering, and so it is important that we who didn't experience the abuse first hand, speak out.
As Simon James, a First Nations artist and storyteller who wrote an endorsement for the book says: "People keep forgetting about the past, especially a past that does not belong to them. If we do not remember the past, we are destined to make those mistakes again." He thanks Lisa Shatzky for making "these memories available to those who would never know."
I didn't find myself thinking, are these "good" poems, but rather what is awakened and acknowledged when one reads them? People who have suffered trauma have said that the silence around the trauma, as if it never happened, has been the worst pain to bear.
In the first poem in the collection, "Children Lost," the poet asks what to do with the face of the children and the stories that "have entered me / by chance, like the small rain / of a coastal forest in early spring?" What she did was write poems of the stories as well as "hear them when the moon falls / on nights luminous and transparent / and weeping in my hands."
References to nature in the poems are not to create a pretty picture, although they do soften the impact of the contents; they are a way to find solace and beauty, something constant and ever renewing. Although the Earth "weeps for all of us" as described in "The Earth Weeps, "the Earth knows how to heal herself."
There's a bluntness and frankness about the poems. Nothing is made pretty and adjectives are rare. The spare lines tell of decades of profound loss as in "The Elders": "When you take away / a people's children, / the elders lose / their stories."
The book is grey with black endpapers, which befits a solemn occasion of loss. Sometimes there is color in the poems such as: "a little girl in a blue summer / dress with pink smiling suns / on the sleeves" in "Finding the Child." Sometimes the color is a mix of ink and blood when a young man "carves long deep lines on his arms . . . . to feel pain instead of nothing" in "Derek's Blood Rituals."
I couldn't help but be saddened by the poems and angered too by the residential school system and its long-lasting effects. In "Blackberries" the poet writes: "Even in grief there is song. / Even when pieces of the heart / are broken and taken / the heart carries on." It's that courageous spirit that I take away with me after reading these poems.
Lisa Shatzky was born in Montreal and has lived in Vancouver and Bowen Island, British Columbia for the past twenty-one years. Her poetry has been published in many literary journals and anthologies in Canada and the United States. When not writing, she works as a trauma therapist and runs marathons, kayaks, and wanders among ancient trees.
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