Boussole franche, Amber O’Reilly
Saint-Boniface QC: Les Éditions du Blé, 2020.
Strong themes dominate this book: O’Reilly wants to write, speak, cry out, share about being francophone, about being a woman, about sexuality, about being from the Northwest Territories – and about episodes in her life, grouped according to the locations where they took place (the NWT, BC, Prairies, and “South,” or Montreal). She takes up poetic devices, a few quotations, and transforms songs toward this expressive goal, giving them new life, passing them on. She breaks patterns with a variety of dispositions, spacing, kinds of line breaks, even a bit of typography of the body.
And she keeps an image throughout: the letter Y. Y as in Yellowknife (not Yukon), as in the Forks where the Assiniboine and the Red “ryvers” meet in Winnipeg, as in the alley behind the YMCA where a sexual encounter takes place, as in the way typography (“Typographye” with the extra y that should be an i at the end) can render a crotch (and as opposed to the sideways X of a muted mouth): “our crotches / twist themselves / with irreversible choices” (nos entrejambes / se tordent / de choix irréversibles, 83).
Opposition is a common strand in the form of her poems: two poems side by side, one in French, one in English, twist themselves into one another; oppositions are marked by slashes and backslashes; two series of words are placed in columns and centered, their opposition in form creating an opposition in meaning that isn’t already inscribed in their symbolism; and opposition and resistance are themes that constantly reappear, bringing an underlying unity to the book.
The difficulty of O’Reilly’s more explicit themes is that they are relatively novel to each person, they have no vocabulary in daily language. Their language is expanding, but still limited to the initiated. These themes are simply not discussed openly, there is no discourse to pick up and develop. Picking up other books of theory or poetry won’t be sufficient, the experiences and theories others offer only call for more, for further development of the language. And so a poetic expression must first invent this language, and transform it at the same time. Femininity is an especially difficult theme (as is masculinity – but that’s not the point here): it’s rooted in the body, it’s tied to shame and a desire to simply be without being defined, it intersects with other social realities. And it’s defined by an objectifying/reifying and instrumentalizing language that leaves little room for reflection.
The same goes for the minority Francophone experience, one O’Reilly describes in the relationship to Québec both in the Northwest Territories when Quebecers arrive, and in Montreal when she arrives there:
our little lives
topic of derision
depending on tastes
was it our
or our inexperience
of toxidiot high school without cliques
our childhoods in amalgamated kinship
that made us
minoritadpoles minoritwits minoriteletubbies
nos petites vies
tout à coup
sujet de dérision
selon les gouts
accents à moitié cuits
ou notre inexpérience
de secondaire toxicon sans cliques
nos enfances en parenté amalgamée
qui nous rendaient
minoritétards minoritéteux minoritéletubbies ? (17)
a metropolis that
crackles the salvation
of this bitumen and plastic country
une métropole qui
griche le salut
de ce pays bitume et plastique (67)
This is one theme where invention is necessary: in spite of a strong tradition, anchored in Acadie, Northern Ontario, and Saint-Boniface (around the Éditions du Blé who published O’Reilly in their new collection focusing on young voices), the situation and its expressions remain relatively unknown outside of francophone communities. O’Reilly participates in this ceaselessly repeated self-affirmation toward Anglophones across the country and Francophones in Québec:
we can move across
the 60th parallel
flow into the Arctic ocean
run up in a y
et les Canadiens
qu’on peut traverser
le 60e parallèle
s’écouler dans l’océan Arctique
monter en y (11)
She seeks a direction for her own experience of the Northwest territories apart from the generation that transplanted itself, as part of a generation who is aware of a previous Indigenous presence, a generation doomed to continue to movement of uprooting of their parents:
I am a generation
that seeks its name on the outside
a structural runaway
a bilingual biannual migratory flux
where I have a semblance
of belonging to the earth
je suis une
qui cherche son nom à l’extérieur
une fugue structurelle
un flux migratoire bilingue bisannuel
orbitant à l’infini
là où j’ai un semblant
d’appartenance à la terre (13)
Against the expectations placed on women and on Francophones in minority communities, O’Reilly traces paths toward ways of speaking and existing without self-correction.
Jérôme Melançon writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. He is the author of two books of poetry, De perdre tes pas (2011) and Quelques pas quelque part (2016) with Éditions des Plaines, one book of philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018), and more recently a bilingual chapbook with above/ground press, Coup (2020).