Intrinsically Tied to Reciprocity

Selina Boan's Undoing Hours reviewed
By Phinder Dulai
Selina Boan, Undoing Hours - Book Cover

Undoing Hours
Selina Boan
Nightwood Edition, 2021

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In Selina Boan’s debut collection of poetry entitled Undoing Hours we are opened up to a way of experiencing this world through the journey of a white settler–nehiyaw poet seeking out her language, her family history and cultural legacies.

In a recent interview Boan had this to say about connecting to her Cree heritage:

“nêhiyawêwin comes from the land and so learning is intrinsically tied to reciprocity, community, and place; I am so grateful to the Elders and knowledge keepers who I am currently learning from. nêhiyawêwin is such a beautiful language with so many different dialects and variations depending what community you come from… Language is central to the way we view and construct the world around us.”

And so we are taken on Boan’s reclamation of her cultural identity which has been missing throughout her young life. This collection is both lyric, ethereal and innovative.

At the center of this collection is her reunion with a father she remembers but never grew up to build a relationship. Throughout this collection there are poems that asks the reader to inhabit a place in the generative language she creates from the fragmented words of her heritage. Boan explores in fine detail the sound and breath of the word “She is a noun inflection… footsteps inside a word.”

Coming from a mixed-race background Boan’s lingual leaps evoke searches for a language and community where she feels grounded.

The collection is replete with nêhiyawêwin vocabulary, along with English, holding the colonial tension at the forefront of the reader’s mind. Boan meditates on the seasons as they roll by and amidst her ongoing conversations with her Cree father;

The word takwâkin means “it is Fall” and Boan continues

how leaves commit themselves to change
how grass rolls gold
moose velvet lost to the land

Words integrate as the collection progresses. In the first poem the plot so far, the use of slash gives the poem a staccato effect in reading the poem and the thematics of the poem moves into interrogating language and specifically the English language and concurrently generating the landscape.

ask / what is the history / of a word / a lake of commas / a pause in the muscle of night / a dry river and the snow it holds / i am afraid of getting this life / wrong / a thick- rimmed fence / coins settled in a drawer for food / eat half a lemon and you’ll feel fine / i promise

The collection is a deft exploration in poetic styles. In one poem you will find it blocked and centred, in another, the poems move across the page and the whole collection is a diversity of forms with reoccurring themes of exile from language spoken in nêhiyawêwin, and the ubiquity of the English language.

Boan’s landscape has her in the act of waiting for her father, having fleeting moments with him and thinking and meditating about the absence of him and what he represents as cultural knowledge. How to find your father has such heart-breaking lyrical composition such as:

peel his name like an orange. like the skin on your hands. peel hours apart.
sit so long in that cafe your tea gets cold. pick at your thumb till there’s blood.

Her father appears in broken fragmented conversations or one liner jokes, but all joking aside. This work explores how English fails her and how she reaches across emails, letters, talks with cousins and aunties to find out about her father. In this journey to find self and a parent, Boan’s expansive language and eloquent phrasing captures the reader’s attention.

Undoing Hours is a bold, brave and powerful book of verse that asks us through language on how we see the world. In addition, the author maintains the tensions inherent in mixed race identity, where one is part “yt” and part Cree; and all the unsubtle and subtle differences in thinking through identity fraught with the absence of not being definitively one or the other; but holding both in one’s life and building a community around that tension as well as a poetic community. Boan is mindful of how she was raised and how she is learning and leaning into her Indigenous cultural heritage. In this work, Boan has offered up limpid lyrical compositions that stay with you. Poetry that has depth and cadence, silence and sound and upper most in mind, a deep humanity for life and the landscape.

Phinder Dulai
Phinder Dulai is a writer and poet living in Surrey, B.C. His poetry is published in Canadian Literature Offerings Cue Books Anthology, and other publications. He is a co-founder of The South Of Fraser Inter Arts Collective, and is the author of two poetry books.
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