Poetry in Review: Peter Midgley and Bertrand Bickersteth
Race and conflict highlight these two works from Alberta poets.
By Steven Sandor | September 1, 2020
Let Us Not Think of Them As Barbarians, by Peter Midgley (NeWest Press, 2019) The Response of Weeds, by Bertrand Bickersteth (NeWest Press, 2020)
One poet lives in Edmonton. One lives in Calgary. And each has published a collection over the last few months through NeWest Press.
Both Edmonton’s Peter Midgley (Let Us Not Think of Them As Barbarians) and Calgary’s Bertrand Bickersteth (The Response of Weeds) employ their collections to ask questions about systemic racism and what being “civilized” really means.
Midgley’s work takes the reader back to the early 20th century, and the German genocide of the Herero and Nama people of Namibia. I found myself reading and re-reading the verses. The first time through, I’d simply look for the rhythm and embrace Midgley’s spartan, visceral work. Sand. Bones. Rock. Dust. Then, I’d re-read for greater context. But, the more I got into it, the more I (dare I write this?) grew comfortable with the violence, the death, the blood. And I think that’s the point — when we speak of genocide, the numbers get too big to comprehend, it’s almost impossible to see each life lost as an individual who had hopes, dreams, a family.
As Midgley musically mixes in words from African dialects, there are helpful notes to help the reader understand what they mean — and why they’re important.
Bickersteth casts his eye on the prairies, at racism that isn’t so brutally violent, but damaging nonetheless. He looks critically at Canada, a place that’s supposed to embrace multiculturalism and inclusion. But, he pulls back the layers to showcase the subtle racism that lies underneath casual interactions.
The loaded, too-often-heard statement of “I don’t see colour” is lampooned in “The Blindman” and, in “The North Saskatchewan,” Bickersteth reimagines what it would be like to be a black man in Edmonton, looking to cross the river by ferry at the beginning of the 20th century. The second glances. The not-so-subtle jibes about if the money to pay the fare was stolen or not. But of course, there is no racism because no one was banned from riding the ferry, right?
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These aren’t easy reads. And the poems need to be read and re-read to fully let them work. But the payoffs are worth it.