Aja Couchois Duncan
Litmus Press, May 2016
Aja Couchois Duncan’s Restless Continent is a collection that simply works well as a collection. Duncan’s section by section progression is skillful—in it, we get the presentation of a “restless continent” that starts out in a broad sense and gradually becomes more inclusive of the author. The poet explores environmental and ecological issues while inserting herself and her heritage into this big picture. Duncan’s authorial interjection is crucial; and of course, her Ojibwe roots play a big role in this. By doing this, the poet answers the question of “What is my relationship to the state of our earth?” With its ecological questions, mixture of forms, glossary and poetry of Ojibwe terms, and beautiful prose poems that truly culminate the work, Duncan’s Restless Continent is a must-read.
Duncan’s poetry works with a critical consequence—a cause and effect. Looking at the section titles breaks this down for the reader: “Emerging from the Muck,” “Worst Case: Water,” “Nomenclature, Miigaadiwin, A Forked Tongue,” “Worst Case: Earth,” “A New Order of,” “Worst Case: Metal and Fire,” “Inheritance,” “Worst Case: Air,” “In Situ,” and “Notes on Nomenclature.” The poet’s juxtaposition of the “Worst Case” titles gives the reader this consequential mindset: Duncan is teaching us an ecological lesson through her poetics. This organization is very smart—in fact, it teaches the audience how to read her work.
The book’s first chapter, “Emerging from the Muck” gives us an experimental start. Duncan is subtle in her opening’s approach—this is a collection that builds. Avoiding capitalization and punctuation, Duncan’s speaker, in the opening stanzas, states, “if they say we have come from/oceanic witnesses/then who am i to differ/we who are land and battle/no longer remember/white caps, the pelagic suffering” (3). With this, the speaker establishes that we are the restless continent—we are “land and battle.” Duncan provides the reader with an identity and it is one that we follow not only in this chapter, but also throughout the rest of the book. The lack of capitalization and punctuation gives this first section fluidity—one action leads to the next just as one page seamlessly leads to the other. Duncan’s connection between linguistics and the environment is fascinating—she writes, “i do not want to talk myself out of this or any other/calamity i warn the sand crabs about/such linguistic solutions the way my father warned me but he was oceanographic and I know/that sailors were not easily lured/by tongue scratchy barnacle/that remote” (5). Duncan is urging the reader towards bigger solutions—if “sailors were not easily lured/by tongue,” then while words have weight, the bigger aim of this collection is awareness with action.
At the same time, Duncan looks at consequences not only for the earth but also for its individuals, which truly makes this collection ecological. The section, “Worst Case: Water” only contains one poem but it is one that begins to bind the the author’s identity with that of the earth. “Worst Case: Water’s” only poem is instructional: “No one will be there to remind you to breathe. Do not panic when your body breaks through the ice to the shock of water below…Ask Sky to help you. She is the end and the beginning” (15). It’s unclear whether this instructional message is for the author from the author or to the readers; however, it proves how we are all ecologically interrelated. Duncan’s invocation of Sky is beautiful. It is this invocation that welcomes the next section: “Nomenclature, Miigaadiwin, A Forked Tongue.”
“Nomenclature, Miigaadiwin, A Forked Tongue” is one of the standout sections of Restless Continent. This section goes with the ending “Notes on Nomenclature” section. The amount of involvement Duncan has in this text is extravagant—sure, it’s all obviously in Duncan’s voice, but the amount of authorial insertion through an exploration of the author’s Ojibwe roots is beautiful. One of the standout entries is “Feast,” in which the speaker voices: “After the feast, there is always regret. The pilgrims regretted everything they did not steal” (24). “Feast” is so direct, precise, and cutting. It is this voice that makes Restless Continent such a must-read. “Possess” and “Quell” are other striking prose poems in this section. Duncan’s mastery of the prose poem is remarkable—in “Possess,” her speaker tells us: “We have tried to codify each calamity in order to present time in equal measure from beginning to end” (35). “Codify each calamity” is such a treasure of language and really summarizes the main idea of the collection.
Besides the prose poem, Duncan is clearly skilled in the personal, and dare I say, the confessional in poetry. “Inheritance” is my favorite section of the book for this reason. This section is particularly haunting and poignant. “Broker,” the final poem of “Inheritance,” exemplifies this idea. In “Broker,” Duncan presents a heritage that I unraveled a pawnshop where a woman sells items linked to her family and heritage. One item in particular stands out: “At the bottom of your purse is a one ounce gold coin your grandmother gave you. It is not an heirloom” (71). In this stanza break, the weight of the bottom of the purse is felt, as the reader begins to feel the full force of poignancy.
One final poem I want to discuss is the sole piece of “Worst Case: Air.” Duncan has this tendency to include her knockout poems as sole pieces that carry entire sections. Again, Duncan’s voice is precise:
The elevator is the last frontier. There are Indians and buffalo. Bring your shotgun and something to roast over the fire. You are Custer and Geronimo, Red Bull and General Jackson. You are in an elevator. You may not breed. The buffalo are waiting in the mountainside. The Indians are inside your skin…Indians are important. Without us, team mascots would only be reptiles and four legged mammals. Without us, there would be no popcorn…Listen to your ancestor. She is on the floor beside you. She is holding your head in the crook of her arm (75).
“Worst Case: Air” brings the whole collection together. It is the exact instructional tone that applies to the speaker’s heritage and brings in the ecological consequences of everything. With this, we understand the power of the speaker’s ancestors and the necessity of following the standard they have set in respecting the earth.
Dorothy Chan is the Assistant Editor of The Southeast Review. She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Plume, Spillway, Little Patuxent Review, Day One, and The Great American Poetry Show. In 2012, The Writing Disorder nominated her poem, “Ikebukuro Train Rides” for a Pushcart.
Aja Couchois Duncan is a Bay Area educator, writer and coach of Ojibwe, French and Scottish descent. Her writing has been anthologized in Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative(Coach House Press,) Bay Poetics (Faux Press) and Love Shook My Heart 2 (Alyson Press). Her most recent chapbook,Nomenclature, Miigaadiwin, a Forked Tongue was published by CC Marimbo press. A fictional writer of non-fiction, she has published essays in the North American Review and Chain.
In 2005, Aja was a recipient of the Marin Arts Council Award Grant for Literary Arts, and, in 2013, she received a James D. Phelan Literary Award. Her first published book, Mysterious Ligature, is forthcoming in 2016 from Litmus Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University.