As the reader is informed through the book’s back cover, the Neyhiyawak (Plains Cree) word “Kitotam” can be translated into English as “he speaks to it”. It is an elegantly fitting title for John McDonald’s new collection, whose direct, heartfelt poems form an excellent example of poetry-as-testament. Utilizing elegy, meditation, and narrative, McDonald chronicles his life with a keen eye and the utmost of care. Through this effort, the reader is brought to a particular state of awareness - there is both subtle beauty and immense injustice in this book, and both are conveyed in a manner of devastating clarity.
I do not at all wish to oversimplify the collection – there are also great moments of irreverence (as in “Adrian”, wherein McDonald castigates those who would make the same tired joke about his middle name) and potent reflections on artistry (particularly in “The Canvas”, a stand-out poem), among numerous other elements. I simply find myself drawn to the poet’s real capacity for capturing the ineffable moods of past eras of one’s life, in all their suffering and joy. The former is brought out in relentless fashion in “For Bernice” (itself a beautiful poem of tribute), wherein McDonald provides a list of brutal, unmerited judgements cast upon him and others: “We were Indians / Decimated and ignorant races not worth the welfare cheques”. The reader is left no room for equivocating, and is made to bear witness to the oppressive pain and difficulty which marked the poet’s experience as an urban Indigenous youth. The latter, that joy (often tinged with melancholy, as with all remembrance) is perfectly demonstrated in “Growing Up in PA” (i.e., Prince Albert, Saskatchewan), in a stanza that merits being quoted at length:
times, few though they were
Young hellions run amok in the city
Raiding crabapple trees and chokecherry bushes
Riding stolen bikes down the sidewalks
Finding treasures in garbage cans and dragging them back home
This stanza – straightforward,
conversational yet declarative, a little wistful – does a profoundly good job
of capturing that vague feeling of looking back on adolescence. There are
moments like this throughout Kitotam, and they create a stunning image
of the poet’s life – a painting of incredible subtlety.
In terms of form, the work is characterized by frequent and masterful use of poetic repetition. This tendency is taken to an extreme in poems such as “Saskatchewan River Blues” (the opening piece in the text) and “The View”, both of which are list poems oriented around a repeated word or short phrase (“water” and “Look across”, respectively). Where I most enjoyed this emphasis on repeated language was in poems such as “My Grandfather’s Hands” and “Smoke”, which use modified repetition (often taking advantage of the reader’s anticipation) to produce strong poetic effects. Though much of the book is conversational in tone, there are engaging sonic moments at many points – as in “The grey boards brittle beneath / Summer suns and winter winds”, from “The Farmhouse”, or this graceful section from “On the Death of Mr. Dressup, September 2001”:
borrowed clothes and fables of old
From the Tickle Trunk
To the open souls of the young
McDonald’s unfailing, unfeigned
concern for the people, events, and reflections which form the subject of his
poetry is reflected at the level of structure. These are deeply enjoyable
poems, both light and imbued with piercing lucidity.
There are many dimensions to the artistic work that John McDonald takes on in Kitotam, and all of them make crucial contributions to the quality of the text. The suffering, injustice, and resulting righteous indignation are fully tied in with the love, nostalgia, and profoundly expressed appreciation and mourning. It is the way that it is, I suppose, with any earnestly lived life, and therein lies Kitotam’s supreme accomplishment. This book is an account which is remarkable and beautiful in its fullness – a testament to which the reader will be grateful to have been able to bear witness.
Ethan Vilu is a student, writer, and editor from Calgary, Alberta. Their poetry longsheet A Decisionre: Zurich was published by The Blasted Tree in 2020. In addition to serving as the current managing editor for NōD Magazine, Ethan works as both circulation manager and as a member of the poetry collective at filling Station. Currently passionate about absurdism, memory, and the dying art of golf club forging, Ethan can always be found working on a series of interminable manuscripts.