A Difficult Beauty

By David Groulx

Reviewed by Jorge Antonio Vallejos

I met David Groulx last year at the International Festival of the Authors in Toronto.  We chatted about poetry and writing programs and politics.  Two days later I heard Groulx read and I was floored. 

Groulx walked to the stage in cowboy boots, jeans, a grey suit jacket, and a big black hat. His slow walk didn’t prepare the mostly white crowd for his words that felt like body shots and uppercuts.  It was an all-Native lineup: Lee Maracle, Drew Hayden Taylor, Joseph Boyden, and David Groulx.

Was the IFOA ready for an Ojibwe man who didn’t hold back? 

Silence can mean many things: attentiveness, engagement, disgust.  Groulx’s poems were beautiful, well crafted, they captured everyone’s attention, and they were also hard to listen to.  Poems about the assault on Mother Earth, white on red racism, cops killing Native men and getting away with it, Groulx laid it all out. 

Still, Groulx stole the show.

It is no surprise that his new collection is called A Difficult Beauty.  At the same time that I enjoyed every poem, some poems had me stop to think of all the wrong that is happening to Native peoples in the land now known as Canada, a place thought of as a safe haven to the rest of the world.  As I read the entire collection in one sitting, sometimes smiling and other times putting the book down because of the hard topics.  I felt that I had connected again with Groulx; connected in the same way that I had connected with him in person and when he was on stage. 

A Roofers Boots (Archaeology) is the mocking of a discipline that was founded by 4 racist white men and has not changed much since (I have a degree in anthropology, trust me, I know!).  A roofer by trade, poet by purpose and passion, Groulx starts with “When they find my boots what will they say?”.

Then comes the fun:

…he must have been a mountain climber

the steel toes worn from kneeling

that he was a priest

praying to the sun God


…he must have been a medicine man warning of the rain

his incantations worn on his heels

He must have been!  She must have been!  They must have been!

How many times have I read that in anthropology texts?  The diaries of anthropologists then and now filled with similar notes; the guesses, hypothesis, ‘facts’, books of half-truths sold as the real story. 

Groulx doesn’t have to stand outside of a museum to protest, he challenges with his words and uses himself, his experience, his people, as the flame for his burning fire of bringing truth.  And boy does he bring it.

Defiant Bruial is an honour song to the warriors who have fought for their rights, some winning, some dying, all in alliance with Native peoples across Turtle Island.  Groulx writes:

I want my head buried in Gustafusen Lake

and my legs buried in OKA

and my feet buried in Burnt Church

my torso buried in Ipperwash

What a start!

Groulx’s homage could be, should be, taught in Canadian Studies classes as Native poetry, rebel poetry, challenging poetry, and educational and honest poetry, giving students and teachers much to work with.  Each place named in the above stanza has a history of defiance that not many Canadians know of, or at least knowledge of the non-white narrative—truth.

Groulx’s Instruments From Oz Or A Paranoid Indian is one of the poems that rocked the crowd at the IFOA.  Each stanza is set up with a powerful first line equal to a crisp jab to be follwed by a right hand:

1)    John Wayne is trying to kill me

2)    Jesus is coming to civilize me

3)    the Sorte du Quebec are hiding in my closet

4)    The Hudson Bay Company has been raiding my fridge

Groulx touches on the racism in Holllywood, the real history of what is now known as The Americas, companies that make billions without having their past questioned, and he ends with one of Canada’s dirty little secrets: Starlight Tours.

If you don’t know what Starlight Tours are then you would think Groulx is a paranoid Indian.  Have you heard of the murders of Neil Stonechild and Lawrence Wegner?  Did you know that cops in the prairies can kill Native men and be ‘punished’ via suspension with pay?  Aboriginal peoples in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba know this all too well.  And so does Groulx:

The police take shots at me when no one

is looking

they point their pistols and wink

they are conspiring to kill me

drag me out to the outskirts of town

and leave me there to freeze to death 

A Difficult Beauty is exactly that.  No other title would suit Groulx’s collection.  They are poems that tackle difficult subjects and keep you reading because they are so well written: kids taken away from families (My Neighbour); towns destroyed by development (Uranium Mine Town Boom); violence against Native women (One Swollen Afternoon); colonial violence (They Wasted Nothing Either); poisoned rivers (Serpent); mixed race identity (Rising Antagonism).

If you are looking for beautiful poems that aren’t about flowers and the fun things in life, but, rather, tell you the truth about the land now known as Canada, pick up A Difficult Beauty by David Groulx.

 Tune in to BlackCoffeePoet Wednesday January 18, 2011 for an inclusive interview with David Groulx.


About Black Coffee Poet

Black Coffee Poet is a mixed race poet, essayist, and journalist who focuses on Social Justice, Indigenous Rights, STOPPING Violence Against Women, Film, and Literature.
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