Whitehead, Joshua. Full-Metal Indigiqueer: poems / Joshua Whitehead. Talonbooks, 2017.
Reviewed by Wes Babcock
In the acknowledgements to this collection, Joshua Whitehead has a message for all the “settlers who wish to continue appropriation: hereIamhereIamhereIam[period]”. I can’t say that I wish to continue appropriation, but I acknowledge that I am a settler, and I do wish to unpack some parts of my experience with this book.
Both the form and content of the poems throughout Full-Metal Indigiqueer slice through barriers imposed by the conventions of language, to assert a new kind of identity for Whitehead, as the poet struggles and fights against the social, literary, and individual colonizations that he lives with/in.
The collection’s project is perhaps best understood through a close reading of the form of the opening two poems. Beginning with the concrete, almost graphic-novelesque “birthing sequence,” Whitehead attempts to situate himself as a present active agent amidst the anglo-franco-european detritus colonizing his psyche. The poem fills the first 18 pages of the book with progressively larger white (and colon-ized) circles on a pure black background, stating “: ::: : : ::: H3R314M:: ::: ::”. This is complicated for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that it suggests a reluctance to use the written words of the English language, and yet finds only a sort-of alternative.
In the second poem, “i no bo - d[i]y,” through an elaborate naming process, which is nearly equal parts denial of the need to be named and expression of a name’s inevitability, the poet becomes “zoa.” Amidst a continued denial of conventional language, he wonders “what means name[questionmark]” and attempts to reach a conclusive definition, by quoting the OED. This is emblematic of the conflict inherent throughout the collection: who am I, in the face of the colonization of all my ways of understanding? how can I use the tools of colonization to decolonize myself and my world? what does an old English man know about me?
Beyond the fact that colons act as literal gatekeepers of meaning: what you find on one side explains what’s on the other, they serve as a partial homophone for colonizer, that is to say settler people. The whiteness of the circles in birthing sequence, not to mention of all the subsequent pages in the book also bears notice. Whitehead takes the reader from a place of no words, and black pages into a whiteness of words, of reprisals of white men’s words, and then back out through a catalogue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The careful logic of this collection’s formal decisions means this path is no accident.
Furthermore, he resolutely refuses to use punctuation besides dashes, braces, parentheses, and the occasional comma, instead writing “[period]” “[questionmark]” and “[blank]” to conclude sentences. These marks are used to expand thoughts, causing a concatenation of ideas, rather than attempting to resolve or complete any of them. It’s also interesting to note that when Whitehead does conclude a sentence, he seems to be left with many more questions than answers: [questionmark]s within the text outnumber [period]s by a significant margin. Only in one poem, in a section composed entirely of non-English letter combinations, do [period]s outnumber [questionmark]s. I don’t know if this section of “i no bo - d[i]y” is transliterations of a language, or a manifestation of the complicated process of learning to speak, but in any case it makes a clear statement that the principal things that Whitehead is sure of are not knowable inside of English.
The winner, in terms of frequency for punctuation, is the colon. I understood this pervasive colon usage as simultaneously a reflection of Whitehead’s continued attempts to make sense of his thoughts, a quirk or his visual taste, and a subtle nod to the omnipresence of colonization throughout our interactions. They of course mean all of that, and none of that, and whatever other interpretations the reader wants to impose on them. This is the appropriative act of reading.
One of the reasons I’ve concerned myself with this exhaustive discussion of punctuation use is that I’m trying to avoid colonizing the substance of the work with my own critical interpretation. Of course, the act of reading is always colonizing in the sense that it’s a re-writing. And these poems are self-consciously re-writings of colonial writings.
Through the middle of the collection, Whitehead is explicitly concerned with the project of decolonizing himself, and “[IN]dig[IT]izing” colonial text. He explodes Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Kundera’s Ignorance, to name a few. There are more explicit literary allusions and reprisals than can be known, let alone identified. In fact, the small set of “Sources” that Whitehead includes reminds me of nothing so much as Eliot’s “Notes on ‘The Wasteland,’” in the sense that more is omitted than is revealed.
Whitehead displays a clear love for the possibilities of written language, despite his misgivings about how it has come to be a part of his life through the colonial process. The creative use of text and language throughout this collection suggests that creative use of language can become a bold way through the traps set up to confine speakers to sanctioned ways of expressing themselves.
Wes Babcock is a Toronto-based writer, editor, and performer. His most recent work has been in the theatre, where he has co-written and performed in Your Princess is in Another Castle, a play for two actors, currently in its second stage of development following a successful tour in 2017. He is also a stage manager and multi-talented theatre technician whose productions including Vox Théatre’s Oz, and Pinocchio, and Broken Turtle Productions’ Roller Derby Saved My Soul. He has notably worked as a dramaturge on the award-winning production Everybody Dies in December (Best Drama, Atlantic Fringe 2016), and for playwrights such as Gerard Harris and Charles Salmon.
Select writing credits include “Ritual” (poem) untethered magazine vol. 3.1, “Jamie Portman, What Have You Done?” (editorial) newottawacritics.com, and “Oscar Petersen Plays” (poem) the Bywords Quarterly Journal vol. 10.4. After 4 years as a critic with the New Ottawa Critics, he recently ended his tenure with the organization as their managing editor, to pursue his more creative aspirations.
You can find him on Instagram @wildrnesswes, or online at www.wesbabcock.com. When he’s not at his desk, on stage, or online, you will likely find him clinging to vertical rock faces, or paddling a canoe.