Sunday, July 3, 2022

Jérôme Melançon : La patience du lichen, by Noémie Pomerleau-Cloutier

La patience du lichen, Noémie Pomerleau-Cloutier
La peuplade, 2022





Noémie Pomerleau-Cloutier’s journey on the Lower-North-Shore of the Gulf of Saint-Lawrence begins where Québec’s highway 138 ends, and brings her to Blanc-Sablon, where Québec and Labrador are indistinguishable – where Newfoundland no longer shields the view to the ocean. Pomerleau-Cloutier’s book does not condense or weave or connect the 150 people with whom she talked and whom she recorded, or the locations she names. It also avoids the aesthetic of the postcard. Through this rather thick book of poetry (over 250 pages) she passes on to her readers what each place, each person gave her. The result is a generous, engrossing book.

Each page in La patience du lichen (The patience of lichen) contains an untitled poem. Few offer a conclusion. Since many run to the bottom of the page, we get the sense of longer, continuing poems, with short breaks between moments. They remain distinct mostly because of the different stories they tell, but the stories themselves feel like they run through one another, without clear boundaries. The distinctions between stops on the trip and conversations are not absolute. The book taken as a whole capture the blurring of hours, days, encounters, and stories; but also the feeling of sharing time with others, of community, of not entirely belonging to oneself alone.

Each section focuses on a location along the trip. The last poem in each section tends to be more reflective, to share an insight that is not a lesson, a story whose meaning envelops other stories, suggests what other stories are also present but not gathered or shared. These are often moments of great beauty, as when Pomerleau-Cloutier mentions a small group of women: “they look at each other / while they talk / their words darned // a sorority / crimped with threads / for what can fray” (“elles se regardent / en parlant / leurs mots reprisés // une sororité / sertie de fils / pour ce qui s’élime,” 34). Some sections also end with a short personal narrative in prose, a respite that offers the energy to move forward; a detachment from one place to make way for another.

While Mutton Bay gives personal stories, La Tabatière offers stories of change, and Old Fort is more personal to Pomerleau-Cloutier, giving her space to situate herself more explicitly in her poems. The “Old Fort” section feels the most like a single poem, containing different moments of a narrative. The shift in pronouns give the impression that the poet is speaking to a roomful of people, and tells us as reader a different version of what she tells (back) to those she has met.

The journey ends where Québec ends. This is perhaps an unavoidable result of the material conditions of a trip by boat with a private company, but it is also a reflection of the Québécois imaginary. Yet throughout the journey we sense that Québec keeps its distance from this land, we are given to see the lack of supports and of permissions, the control that takes place without the distribution that’s promised to the population. Resources and youth are taken, and little of these losses find their way back.

Throughout we feel a concern for the arbitrariness of borders imposed from afar (as they always are):

“you get up in the middle of the night
you get wet
so that a Quebec

that has no idea
of your presence

eats its share of treasures

here it’s Newfoundland
that’s keeping you afloat”

“vous vous levez au milieu de la nuit
vous vous mouillez
pour qu’un Québec

n’ayant aucune idée
de votre présence

mange son lot de trésors

ici c’est Terre-Neuve
qui vous maintient à flot” (217)

Borders are thus irrationally imposed and constantly transgressed. They are also relative, as when Pomerleau-Cloutier speaks of a river between an English-speaking community and an Innu community, “a border / that opens up wider / when it’s frozen” (“une frontière / plus ouverte / quand elle est gelée,” 167). And borders are simply ignored, without defiance: “couples go to bed / on a border / quick to learn / how to live midwater” (“les couples se couchent / sur une frontière / vivre entre deux eaux / ça s’apprend vite,” 224).

Pomerleau-Cloutier moves through borders herself, both by addressing different people and bringing them into the book through their stories, and by using bilingual or multi-lingual passages – words told to her in English; words translated for her in Innu-aimun. She owns this capacity and decision against the (imagined? by her or me?) criticism of her use of English: “it’s not called a mix / when we reach each other” (“on n’appelle pas ça un mélange / quand on se rejoint,” 225). Having recourse to different languages can be a way to repair what has been broken, especially what colonialism and residential schools (which are only alluded to) attempted to destroy. As in this use of the comparison with embroidery: “reparation / ka uaueshtakan / might take place / put ma tshipa tshi / one stitch at a time / papaiuk e tshittapatakanu” (“la réparation / ka uaueshtakan / se fait peut-être / put ma tshipa tshi / un point à la fois / papaiuk e tshittapatakanu,” 62). Pomerleau-Cloutier ends the book by questioning the distinction between Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador, simply by putting side by side the same sentiment in English, French, and Innu-aimun. 

In spite of the presence of larger systems, there is no concern here for the structural, the causes of the changes that lead to the loss of ways of life, of the objects and people that used to fill daily life. She comes to the territory after, but this after is not defined. The change is felt, lived, sensed, but not named. Except for the odd time when a government decision has an immediate effect on the local economy. Using once again the idea of a dominant society that ignores the existence of these communities, Pomerleau-Cloutier, likens their members to marine life that sustains their own but is not directly experienced and is easily forgotten in spite of its necessity: “in this ecosystem / you are a plankton” (dans cet écosystème / tu es un plancton,” 234).

Through metaphors and the stories themselves, the relationship to the territory on the Côte-Nord includes both land and sea. This relationship is a continuous concern, changing for Indigenous and settler communities, although constant on many points between them as well: “the flesh / the skins / the pelts / the lobsters / have fed their organs / have paid their studies // the territory educates / in different ways” (“les chairs / les peaux / les fourrures / les homards / ont nourri leurs organes / ont payé leurs études // le territoire éduque / de diverses façons,” 176).

We see then that this territory is fully peopled, lived through, and we feel Pomerleau-Cloutier’s admiration for her interlocutors. For a woman who crosses the river by boat regularly to ensure there is food available even when the thawed river separates the community from the next, she writes:

“she sees shelters
up before the torrent
to bring knowledge of

her land

your neck must be well-toned
to visualise
the trajectory of water”

“elle voit des abris

en haut du torrent
pour faire connaître

sa terre

il faut avoir le cou musclé
pour visualiser

la trajectoire de l’eau” (164)

We also feel her tenderness, and her capacity to pass on the love she witnesses:

“married for over half a century
they have always worked

polish the schools’ floor
to prepare the flight

of their neighbours’ future
in love

a couple, two loons
on the bay”

“mariés depuis plus d’un demi-siècle
ils ont toujours travaillé

polir le plancher des écoles
pour que s’envole

le futur des patelins
ils s’aiment

un couple de huards
sur la baie”


Amid the reasons for leaving and the reasons for staying she is told or notices, Pomerleau-Cloutier gives life and space to a part of the world that so often does not count for others. With this book she fights against carelessness, exploitation, and neglect:

“the rest of the world / is not any larger / than these tributaries” (“le reste du monde / n’est pas plus large / que ce qui afflue ici,” 196).






Jérôme Melançon writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. His most recent chapbook is with above/ground press, Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022, after 2020’s Coup), and his most recent poetry collection is En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021). He has also published two books of poetry with Éditions des Plaines, De perdre tes pas (2011) and Quelques pas quelque part (2016), as well as one book of philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018). He has edited books and journal issues, and keeps publishing academic articles that have nothing to do with any of this. He’s on Twitter mostly, and sometimes on Instagram at @lethejerome.

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