- The Sky Watched: Poems of Ojibwe Lives by Linda LeGarde Grover
The lyrical voice in The Sky Watched can sing a lullaby and then sting like a switch as it moves through the seasons of Ojibwe lives in Linda LeGarde Grover's new poetry collection. The poems recount traditional stories that lay a cultural foundation for memories of school years and family and place, reinforced by Ojibwemowin, the [End Page 375] language of the people. There is no "magical realism" here, only the harsh realities and the wondrous joy of real lives hard lived.
The journey begins in "Ziigwan Spring" with three poems that set the stage for the rest of the collection as they tell the beginnings of the world and of the Ojibwe people. In "Redemption," Grover sends readers into the depths of the black water as Nanaboozhoo and the animals attempt to restore land after the Great Flood. Her descriptive detail is exquisite as tiny Wazhashk, the Muskrat, has the courage to dive in as
water circled your departure,for a moment transparently coveringrose-gray soles tiny seed pearl toesabove that determined small warrior body(9)
This deceptively simple introduction to Ojibwe cosmology creates wonder in sacrifice, survival, and persistence—an overarching theme of Grover's work.
The second section, "Niibin Summer," is the longest and reveals the lasting effects of residential boarding schools on three generations of a family. From "Everything You Need to Know in Life You'll Learn in Boarding School," with its admonitions of "Speak English" and "You'll never amount to anything" (17), to "The Canticle of the Night" where two boys are "counting stars counting snores / counting days weeks years" (28), Grover chronicles the darkness and regimented control of boarding school experiences made bearable by the reminders of the love of families at home, of summers when grandmothers taught young girls to bead, mothers baked lugalette every day, and aunties laughed as they washed clothes. These were the memories that helped ease the pain of physical punishment and emotional humiliation endured over the school year by the children represented in these poems.
Many of those children grew up and their stories are told in "Dagwaagin Autumn." They are defiant in their desire to succeed, much like the "invisible" Indian boy in "For Asin." This "solitary warrior" asks about college, but "it isn't for everyone, said the counselor" (55). Even those who become lost or get pushed away are treated with such tender depictions in these lines that the inherent value [End Page 376] of their lives is evident, despite the indifferent and often indignant way they are treated by the larger society. Grover hones in on the simplest memories and objects to connect readers to the vast array of experiences faced in Ojibwe lives. These are not metaphors, but the substance of day-to-day survival: piles of blankets, the sky song of ricing day, the shimmer of dreams.
Her collection ends with "Biboon Winter," and circles back around to the importance of ceremony, language, and continuance. In "The Beanbag" there is a cycle of creation from destruction in finding a child's toy beanbag made from a grandmother's favorite dress in the melting snows of spring.
Split and spilt, its damp side finely piercedby an infant bean seedling yet blind, but greedyfor the light, born in a cocoon of floweredblue calico, a pattern wet with snowforget-me-nots an early sign of springentwined now with a trace of tender green.(77)
The Sky Watched continues the elegant writing of Grover's previous works, The Dance Boots: Stories (winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction for 2010) and The Road Back to Sweet-grass: A Novel (2014). Evoking hope in sacrifice, Grover masterfully restores the world, much like the muskrat Wazhask after the Great Flood, and reminds us that we are all blessed by the song in her poems—"a continuing song / since long before the memory of mortals" (85). Her rhythmic...