Reviewer: Katharine Blair
Reviewer’s note: I am putting the final keystrokes into this review as my home and native land of Canada wrestles with the discovery of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in the province of British Columbia. Many of us are grief-stricken, many are angry, but only the willfully ignorant are surprised. There is a tendency to paint the erasure of native/aboriginal/metis/indigenous cultures and people as a historical aberration, an embarrassment of a long-dead past. This school closed in 1978. The last Residential School in Canada closed in 1996 when I was in the 11th grade. The Highway of Tears continues to steal our women and girls just as the penal system does our men and boys to this day. I cannot think of a better time to be reading this book. My heart to the people of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. Now, back before this and every beginning, and on into every future yet to come.
Sometimes the dead follow you home
and post themselves in your room at night
(“Tending the Dying”)
The phrase “tending the dying” doesn’t appear until more than halfway through Flight and the lines quoted above serve as confirmation of what the reader has come to suspect: this is a book best described as a text that lives in the aftermath. An argument could be made that it is a collection about death, given the very literal human deaths we are invited to witness along the way, but Becker never seems preoccupied with the terminus. There is a movement to every ending here, a need to situate the present in the context of the past, an insistence on a solid foundation of context from which to grow. So many things have been lost, Becker tells us. What happens now? What do we make of what is left?
Even photographs of bones contaminate
All the defilement of graves:
it is not enough to repatriate
We don’t like to gaze at death like white people do
(“The Raven Mockers”)
This very present reckoning with history arises again in “Survivor Song” when Becker delineates a quiet and tender moment between caregiver and patient, Cherokee and Jewish, both survivors of genocide, parallel lives now sitting side by side: “You never tell him you are also / from a holocausted people // You will never forget him.”
The last line sits alone on the page, drawing notice as a directive should. This call to remember repeats throughout the collection. In “Copper,” Becker writes, “I’ll cry later in the car but I will also remember ….” In “Erasure” she offers, “So that you may rest / I guard even your forgetting.” So many atrocities have been carried out in the name of racist ideals. Hate crimes of such overwhelming scale that it is easy for the detached and distanced to get lost in the numbers and yet, here, in “Survivor Song,” millions of murdered and missing are distilled into three people: a dying man and his caregiver, and a reader, who bears witness to a most loving and understanding kind of care, a care echoed by the empathic tone inherent to “Copper” and “Erasure.”
It is this care, this quiet, that ultimately renders Flight so compelling. Becker draws tidy and subtle comparisons between the speaker and subject that connect the suffering across generational and cultural lines. In “Survivor Song,” a rabbi is referred to as an elder, for example, drawing Cherokee and Jew closer across what could have been a cultural divide.
As the reader is invited into hospice rooms and homes, relationships, and Becker’s own reclamation of her Cherokee heritage, we are asked again and again to consider the impact of a life, a language, the touch of another human being, how we are shaped by the smallest of connections; to be conscious of the history we carry, the ways in which the dead do and don’t settle, and how to live in the aftermath of every twist and turn and loss that paved our individual and collective ways here.
So I speak softly to the raven, who
does not interrupt or commiserate
but who is attentive without being
anxious, caring without patronizing
When I’m finished, I realize I have cried
and Raven reaches through the bars and wipes
my tears with a soothing sweep of feathers
from the wing that had been broken
—You’ve served your sentence of sorrow long enough
Go and listen to someone else; in that
way we free each other from our prisons
(“The Woman at the Knoxville Zoo”)
Becker, as our speaker, is the raven to her clients, the raven to her heritage, the raven of “Triptych: Creation, Dove, Raven,” who sees not only a rebirth in the light, but also the destruction that allowed it. The raven that remembers everything that came before.
The long poem “Questing” closes out the collection and serves as the culmination of everything we’ve come to learn. Part lament, part plea, part call to arms, “Questing” unites the poems and points towards the possibility of physical, spiritual, and intersocial congruity. One planet, one people, one organism to protect. We are small, the poem tells us, but our actions reverberate. The piece asks, “Where are all my warriors?” and reminds us that we each play a part in the care of others, in the preservation of culture, in the keeping of histories, and in the protection of this planet:
We elements keep faith with you if you
keep faith with us first; I yearn to help you
but you must learn your sacred medicine
Stop burning all your bridges