Poetry Cure: Indianland by Lesley Belleau

Lesley Belleau’s first book of poetry, Indianland (ARP Books) is concerned with woman- and motherhood, Indigenous life and politics, nature, longing, and memory. Interspersed with Anishinaabemowin throughout – like the poem “mahwee animikee”, below – her collection is unflinchingly honest, heart-rending, and soulful.


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An Interview with Lesley

All Lit Up: Tell us about your collection.Lesley Belleau: My collection has been one that I have been writing for some time and ended up writing over some years, a great deal of my own poetry that I wrote in between my family life, academics, and other works. I wasn’t comfortable for a while in sharing as it was personal and I was accustomed to fiction and short fictional stories, and so when I revisited the poetry after several years, I felt it was relevant and that I had a desire to share it and to engage in Indigenous poetics as a volume. I enjoyed writing it, and I wrote poetry to try to understand and weave my own understanding and life and experiences together. I feel Indigenous lived experience is one of the most significant ways of trying to map our past and braid it together with our contemporary present, and this is what I have attempted to do with this collection.Growing up on the reserve, sometimes my own family and perhaps, community felt dislocated from others understanding our ways; or maybe felt it might not be a possibility for a long time. From racial and cultural abuses, and watching my own father fight his way out of residential school Colonialism toward death, I was weary. Today, in my fourth decade, however, I feel that I am looking at my children’s futures and knowledge and experiences much more than my own. So I write so that my own children and their children and so on can understand how we understood the world. Especially as a woman, afraid, strong, sometimes confused, always incessant to knowing those that came before me and the ways that have always been here, that sometimes I was cut off from. Residential school destroyed our language and confidence through generations. I am thankful my children did not know residential schools. My poetry comes at a time where I see my children more confident, but yet still reeling with the effects of colonialism and abuses that come through the residue of our generations and it is from this that I feel that literature, and poetry are necessary elements for our people to understand the depths (outside of Oral Stories – which we sometimes are not able or gifted to pass on to the outer world).  My collection attempts to display the reality of my lived experience, and those of my ancestors, and lived experience in its fullest and less complete moments.  ALU: What books are you currently reading?LB: I am currently re-reading Louise Halfe’s The Crooked Good, Katherine Vermette’s The Break again, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves which I haven’t been able to read until now, and my favourite book ever, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, which I lent out and never got the chance to read again until I found it at Vinnys Thrift Store for a dollar. I am re-reading with a fervour. He is one of my favourite authors since I was young.ALU: What’s the best piece of advice anyone has given you about writing, or life?LB: The best piece of advice anyone has ever given me lays in two people. I was a high school dropout and I took the tests and went back to university. I met Dr. Karl Jirgens, who in so many ways, encouraged me to write about my own life. I was a fiction writer because I didn’t understand that it was okay to write about my own experience. Once Dr. Jirgens encouraged me to to so, I felt an empowerment that i had no idea existed before. I was failing English class and we had a meeting about it and he asked me why? I said I have nothing to write about that is important. Then we started discussing where I came from and he said to just take it from there and find something, and write about it and turn it in. After I wrote the truth, I was encouraged. Before that, I felt I had to hide the truth, had to pretend I did not come from where I came from and know what I know because I was used to extreme racism after Oka’s aftermath. With his encouraging, I learned how to write honestly. After that, I met Dr. Bernie Harder while I was doing my M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Windsor. He knew my family and was a great ally, and deeply encouraged me to learn HOW to write from the very deep belly of the heart. With no judgement. And I learned then, from him, there is safety here. It is alright to be honest and to tell our stories. Before that, I only knew how to do things to be acceptable. So it was at Algoma and University of Windsor that I found safety in knowing that it is alright to talk and to be alright. Before that, I was a very, very afraid young girl. Once I wrote, I was able to learn that our voices matter.ALU: What, outside of other books/writers, inspires your writing?LB: Outside of other books written, the inspiration for my writing comes from the new generation and the people that I am happy to have observed and met in my lifetime. Being a mother for 17 years has made me realize that life has a quality that is so precious that it cannot begin to be recorded. All my writings about my children doesn’t seem to qualify the depth of the feelings of motherhood. My children woke me up in a new way. Knowing their lives makes me understand that their lives and all of the new generations’ lives have more than we have. We fought for them, we did everything so that they can succeed and it is in all of these young people that our fruits lay within. And we continue to tell our children about their grandmothers and grandfathers, and the history that is writhing at our feet. And they will do more than we were able to do. They will be the voice of our future. So we lay the ground, and they will take over, in all of their strengths. My inspiration is knowing that they will continue our fight, and do all that we could not. They will have opportunities that we weren’t able to and that they are stronger than us. But they will also know that our movements have driven them in their directions, because the Indigenous youth know where they came from and why, and for that I am so grateful. Eventually, our babies outlive us and become the vitality of this world and they will thrive. They will thrive. Each one of them becomes the longevity of the story that has been pulsing for generations. They are our hope.

The Poem

mahwee animikee 
on a hill black hair flying
her back turned, eyes closed 
people say she looked like thunder 
if thunder had a face 
last we saw of her
first time her husband saw her crying 
was when she ran toward that hill 
heels blackened from the dirt
black hair flying 
that morning, face carved into story
she was talking to me about how the
ojibway women would just put their men’s
things outside the door when they wanted
them to leave
they wouldn’t come back in anger
they would just go 
go mahwee away mahwee mahwee 
thunder crying is as dense as pelts
hung airborne drying after the rains
the deep of the river the bottom the dank 
blackness riverbottom searching under shells 
finding seaweed skins and bloodsuckers 
digging digging without a breath 
the hill sits on the edge of the reserve 
beside the trail of tracks
trains pass by and watch the children 
picking berries watch the children 
chokecherries in palm 
on the hill she looks majestic 
something from another world
a sky image a carving a long
limbed daughter with tears too big 
for her face with tears like armies of 
ants journeying their abundance 
she never sits
stands statued the train 
whipping her hair thundering 
her body raining her with wind 
clothes tight around her she is 
beautiful she is pained she is grief 
and he doesn’t follow her he doesn’t 
follow her 
she is last seen there
blueberries crushed on her ankles
legs wrapped in milkweed
dress wet and hair like pillars down back 
she is thinking but she can’t be read
just watching the train back just watching 
its slither its stealth its smooth escape 
past mourning she lifts her fists
like lightning lifts her pain to the sky
and offers it outward a bounty
palms so small childlike wrinkled from the rain 
a band of gold an orifice a circle a glint
a first flash before the light falls down 
– From Indianland by Lesley Belleau
Lesley Belleau is an Anishnaabekwe writer from Ketegaunseebee Garden River First Nation (Ojibwe), near Bawating/Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Lesley lives in Peterborough where she is completing her PhD in Indigenous Studies at Trent. She also has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Windsor. She has sat on arts juries and won numerous writing grants and academic awards, including from the Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council. She’s been called by Leanne Simpson a talented emerging Indigenous writer.
During the month of April, you can buy Indianland as well as any of our featured Poetry Cure books for 15% off (+ get a free notebook to jot down your moments of reflection).Keep up with us all month on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook with the hashtag #ALUpoetrycure.