Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Reader's Diary #181- Margo Button: The Elders' Palace (FINISHED)

Margo Button's The Elders' Palace, at 64 pages, is one of the shortest collections of poetry I've ever read. It's made even shorter due to the fact that every other page is a Inuinnaqtun translation.

However, Button packs a lot of emotion into a very short collection. A lot of raw sadness. While she may be writing about the Inuit, her own pain seems to be the focus. As you read the book synopsis on the back cover you discover that the poet's son committed suicide. It is quite apparent when you start reading that Button used her poetry for catharsis. It's quite depressing at times when most of the images are of death; people and animals. Yet at the same time, there's a positive message underlying the book- that we can find solace in others. Even if they are of a different culture, they still know pain afterall.

In terms of quality, no particular poem sticks out as particularly fantastic, but neither could I pinpoint one that I didn't like. I did have a little concern over one poem entitled "The Children". As Button recounts a discussion with a woman named Ekvana, she recalls pushing Ekvana to admit some pain from giving away her daughter. As Button asks "But didn't it hurt to lose your child?" the poem ends with the line, "Ekvana raises her eyebrows." My concern is that it feels a little irresponsible of her [Button] to not add a footnote explaining the gesture. A reader from Southern Canada, unfamiliar with Inuit customs, would read that entirely different than those who live here. The Inuit raise their eyebrows to say "yes", and scrunch up their noses to mean "no". It's the equivalent of nodding and shaking ones' head in other parts of the globe. But someone unfamiliar with that meaning, could take it to mean Ekvana is asking, "Are you serious?" Or "Are you going to push me on this?". Knowing both interpretations, I like the line. The best poems have lots of phrases that could be taken many ways. However, without a note added, most readers probably would never have gotten the full meaning of that line.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

That's fascinating. I had no idea about this Inuit gesture. What a huge difference that makes in meaning to the poem. Quite astounding, really.

John Mutford said...

They're gestures that we found we picked up quite fast, to the point where by they become habitual. It took us off guard the first time we flew south. Imagine the confusion when our Tim Hortons' server asked "Small?" and we raised our eyebrows. Generally, as soon as the look of confusion hits, we know what we've done and correct it. If only the rest of the language came that simply.

In terms of the poem, I have no reason to believe Button wouldn't have known the Inuit meaning of the gesture. She stayed for several months, and really it's one of the first things you learn when you get here. Unless you're completely unobservant.