Philip Kevin Paul, Little Hunger

I've delayed getting to this review, because I've been busy enough and unsettled enough that I haven't been able to focus on how I've felt and thought about Philip Kevin Paul's delayed but eventually released second book of verse, Little Hunger. Paul is a member of the WSA,NEC (Saanich) First Nation, and he says he writes for them - not to them, not about them, though this book does both those things as well, but for them. I'm not sure whether he's speaking on their behalf (as a kind of voice of the people), or writing with them in mind as his audience.

It might seem unnecessary to dwell on this instability, but in fact it mirrors my reaction to the book. Having read not that long ago the essay collections edited by the incredibly prolific Devon Mihesuah (Natives and Academics and Indigenizing the Academy, the second co-edited with Waziyatawin) about academia and Indigenous peoples, I had a hard time getting comfortable with this book, as if I hadn't earned the right to read and appreciate these poems. Attending the job-talks in December of the candidates our department is choosing from for its position in Indigenous literatures brought these issues forward in my mind as well.

To be clear, there's plenty to appreciate about these poems. At his best, Paul is able to communicate a precise, intimate vision of his world. Central to this book are his family members. I was overwhelmed by the poem about bathing in Saanich Inlet with his uncle ("Waiting for the Sun"), the ritual unexplained but the love between them clear - including how he teases his uncle about his age. I particularly enjoyed "Released from an Ordinary Night," which ends with a man freshly out of jail ("he's trying to remember / how to stand at a bus stop, where to look / when a stranger comes near"), "Prayer to End Silences," "Making the Forgotten," and "A Whale Can Bring You to Where It Starts."

My favourite lines are from the close of "Building My Home in Your Mind," which comes among a series of poems in which his father doesn't come off all that well:
The best time to listen intently to a wind-blown rain is when
you are completely apathetic or too heart-tender, yet exhume visions
of your half-naked father in threadbare gumboots and thin underwear,
rattling blindly in the late and early-morning hours
to upturn a garbage can under your bedroom window,
knowing how much you love the sound of rain--
this is the best time to accept the apologies he never spoke.
In these lines the father, who is clearly beloved and has been greatly missed after his death but was a figure of some chaos in Paul's life, is more than rehabilitated. There's more than a hint of myth-making here, but reasonably so, it seems.

As much as I enjoyed the book, though, I kept thinking I was missing part of the beauty. It's funny, I'm not sure why I'm so bothered by this. After all, I've been comfortably reading Latin-American fiction in translation since my teens, cheerfully disconnected from the cultural references and specific colonial history of that region. Paul's writing in English, so we've got that in common, and I've spent time in the places he's writing about, so we've shared space. He's only a year younger than I am, and in his acknowledgements he thanks someone I played sports against in high school. And yet I feel more strongly what I think I don't understand about Paul's poems than what I think I do understand. I don't have that same feeling with Garcia Marquez, Asturias, Vargas Llosa, and the rest of the South American novelists.

In sum, this is but an inconclusive review about Little Hunger. Philip kevin Paul's lyric poems are lovely, pensive and lyrical in the best senses of both words, but I can only partially inhabit them. At this point, I can only partially inhabit them - I'm satisfied with that, but over time I hope to do better.


good review - we will always be perceived as outsiders looking in (re: missing some of the beauty) - I'm listed in the dedication - although p.k.p. misspelled (sp?) my name - did we play sports in highschool? all I recall is smoking and getting top grades...

- chris
richard said…
I keep not getting in to the office to check the book's dedication for a last name for you, but if you were born in 1970 or so, and in Victoria played basketball or rugby, or ran track, then there's a chance.

At this distance I don't remember which names in the dedication rang bells for me!

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