Riel, the icon, humanized through poetry
Louis Riel: The Heretic Poems By Gregory Scofield
Published by Nightwood Editions
Review by Christine McFarlane
Louis Riel is a pivotal figure in Canadian history, and those who have never really understood or known him, are taken on a journey in understanding who exactly Louis Riel is in Gregory Scofield’s new four part book of poetry “Louis Riel: The Heretic Poems.”
Celebrated Metis poet Gregory Scofield draws attention to Riel by juxtaposing historical events and quotes with poetic narrative and draws upon various stages in Riel’s life. This allows his readers a glimpse into each part of Riel’s life, beginning with “Le Garcon (The Boy), which shows us Riel as a boy sitting on a train in the poem “Trip To Civilization, 1858” with Scofield recounting Riel’s journey to St. Paul, and relaying the thoughts of Louis Riel from his journal notes stating
“Twenty eight days we watch the trees grow sparse, and the oxen sway as if their legs are all tendon and marrow.
Finally we reach St. Paul, thank God
And what an exalted sight; to be a pane of glass
In one of the churches, a step at city hall.”
Scofield gives his readers further insight into Riel’s journey, by showing us a glimpse of Riel’s thoughts as he is sailing by steamboat down the Mississippi to Wisconsin, and then by train to Chicago and Detroit, by relaying
“The rest goes like this:
me, Louis Schimdt and Daniel McDougall
we are three crates of prairie dust
sailing down the Mississippi to Wisconsin
Then by train we go to Chicago.
Me, in a velvet seat. Louis Schmidt at the window.
Daniel McDougall asleep, Sister Valade
Plucking the hairs on her chin
Oh my! Oh my!” (pg. 15-16)
You can almost envision Riel as he sits in the train, and how bored he must have been on the long journey as we read about him watching a nun plucking at the hairs on her chin.
Within the section titled Le President (The President), we witness Riel being a revolutionary when he counteracts a small note from Sir John A. Macdonald that states “the impulsive half-breeds have got spoilt by this emeute (rioting) and must be kept down by a strong hand until they are swamped by the influx of the settlers” with the poem aptly titled “The Revolutionary” where Riel states
va chier! I say to him, pointing to all
the puppets of Parliament,
I devote myself not to a masterpiece
Of rhetoric, a sermon of permission
Nor flowered admonition
What I declare here, to you
Is a sermon of salvation, a coaxing fire
We must set ablaze
Within the section aptly titled “The Spokesman” we are witness to another pivotal figure in Metis history, Gabriel Dumont where Riel is revered. Finally in L’Homme D’Etat (The Statesman), the reader becomes a witness to Riel’s prayer before hanging within the poem “The Request” where Riel writes
“This is my fear.
To be put in a box. A poorly chosen box.
One that is constant quarrel over size and shape.
This is my greatest fear”
Further into the poem, the reader becomes privy to Riel and how after he dies by hanging, he does not want to be seen as a victim, or a sufferer but someone whose hands were more of a mapmaker.
Scofield’s ability to make his readers become a part of Louis Riel’s life and journey is amazing. His voice is ideally paired with both the subject matter and Riel’s own poetry and as you read each selection of poetry, the life of Louis Riel’s is humanized. Readers will see Louis Riel outside of being simply a folk hero and martyr; they see him within various roles, as a young boy, a friend, a husband, a father, lover, a poet and a visionary.
Louis: The Heretic Poems is 96 pages and published by Nightwood Editions which is an independent publisher distributed and marketed by Harbour Publishing.
(This review was published in Windspeaker-December 2011)
(c) 2011 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society