Dear rivers


By Alex Leslie | Yesterday I read at a poetry event honouring the work of Chief Dan George — the reading was part of the Salish Sea summer gathering hosted by the Tsleil Waututh nation in the Burrard Inlet, not far from where I grew up in Vancouver. The Tsleil Waututh are currently fighting Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline expansion in their territory.

I was asked to read some of Chief Dan George’s work and to respond in whatever way I wished. I wrote a poem, which you can read following the photographs. With the environmental disaster at Mount Polley in the news, my poem is also a response to those events.

Wil George of the Tsleil Waututh was part of the reading and reminded all of us before he read that Chief Dan George’s writings are not poems in the Western sense, but are teachings and teaching stories from the ancestors.

Before the reading, the poets were invited to paddle with the Tsleil Waututh across the Inlet to the Kinder Morgan plant as part of a ceremony that preceded the festival. As a non-Aboriginal person who is a lifelong resident of the Lower Mainland, I was honoured to be part of this canoe journey with the original keepers of the waters. For me, the invitation to speak to Chief Dan George’s words felt connected to the invitation to be part of this paddling journey. Thank you to the Tsleil Waututh for being gracious hosts and for giving me the opportunity to contribute my writing to their resistance. The ceremony carried out by a Tsleil Waututh elder during the canoe journey reminded me on the many forms that resistance takes and that these water have their own ways of healing.

photo 2 Kinder Morgan in the background. Tsleil Waututh paddle in the foreground. Look ahead

Here is the poem I wrote for the event. It’s a response to Chief Dan George’s piece, ‘Words to a Grandchild.’

Dear Rivers

Dear and open misspelled rivers the very blood running

through my veins

waterways radial arteries

fresh to my small salt vessels

Dear and open misspelled rivers your laughter fills the air

Full of yellow machines rolling in your wake

In your depths the old blood has thickened

But darker grittier now, oil in my veins

Dear and open misspelled rivers I’ve swum in a few of you

Quietness and beauty, now my body rises

in my dreams trailing tailings

a bird cannon on each shoulder

Dear and open misspelled rivers according to BC laws

a natural body of water can be “impounded”

to make a tailing pond – how can the law impound

something that is always in motion? A river

cannot be impounded. So you must be choked.

Dear and open misspelled rivers I know my maps

Mining tailing pond flows into the Quesnel River which flows

into the Fraser River which has flowed my entire life

into my throat which flows into my stomach my bowels into

the Pacific which flows into the clouds

which flow into

Dear and open misspelled rivers Chief Dan George wrote

“there is good in everything” – where is the good in this

is it how a creek became a highway

is it how impounding a lake forces a reminder

is it that water always lets itself happen

is there no good in this – is the lesson that we’ve gone too far

made salmon swim out of their own skins

Dear and open misspelled rivers in 2013 at Mount Polley

406 tonnes arsenic and its compounds

177 tonnes lead and its compounds

326 tonnes nickel and its compounds

18, 413 copper and its compounds

3 tones mercury and its compounds:

Disposal only.

Dear and open misspelled rivers

English is a slippery river

A tailings pond can be a landlocked sea

A tailings pond can be a vast desert no human or animal or bird

Can walk across

A tailings pond is a world

That eats worlds

Dear and open misspelled rivers

The elder on the evening TV news tells the journalist

“it’s like a death in the family, what’s happened to the river”

behind her the water walks past

its own dead path

like a stranger to itself

the golem before the holy words

are slipped into its mouth

Dear and open misspelled rivers

How will you heal

Skin and bone

Mercury and arsenic

Fresh and salt

Dear and open misspelled rivers

What are you thirsty for

Now that your salmon

Cannot drink of you

Dear and open misspelled rivers

As Chief Dan George wrote,

“The spoken word

is not enough”

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