Shapeshifters by Délani Valin
(Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2022, $19.95, 93 pages)
Review by Nyla Matuk
“The problem is that I’m a stranger to myself,” Délani Valin writes halfway through her début collection Shapeshifters, in “What are the Ethics of Picking a Stinging Plant?” The third paragraph of this clever, subtle prose poem continues:
And so, when Nettle asks, Where are you from and who is your
grandmother? I can answer. It’s all in the documents at home. It’s all there
in case you need proof. But when Nettle lowers their voice and asks, Okay
and who are you? I think about my sadness and my credentials and a story
I made up when I was seven. I say something like, I’m just trying to be here.
The metaphor the poet creates juxtaposes the ethics of removing a naturally occurring species, stinging nettle, with a persona of stinging nettle asking the human, whose origins are mysterious, what they are doing amid the stinging nettle in the first place. In the end, the human speaker must be prepared to endure stinging hands, which the speaker implies is both the fallout of “waking up one day” from the presumed dormant state of existing outside of a visibly documented identity; and being a naturally occurring species herself, one who belongs to the land regardless of documentation papers.
Shapeshifters is poetry about identity. It is not a book about identity in the sense of identity as a condition of compulsory recognizability (office politics of IDEA—identity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility and settler-colonial state multiculturalism); or of meaningless accolades in corporate social responsibility statements. Identity, in Valin’s magnificently variegated and wondrous formulations and narratives, declares its authenticity in the face of the by now familiarly disparaging label of “wokeness,” the assumption that one’s origins are a matter of deliberate choice or a social pretension. While admitting your identities remains a fraught political prospect for many, it’s largely the quotidian business of living in those skins and histories that preoccupies the speakers in Shapeshifters.
The poet’s recourse to the natural world and questions of moral import recall Miltonic transformation—in Paradise Lost, the quintessential transformation is the frog speaking into Eve’s ear, a familiar used by Satan, an epic shapeshifter if ever there was one. Milton’s Satan plays a part in bringing the dichotomy of good and evil to a raging boil of ambivalence. The apple is good to eat, but into what postlapsarian world will succumbing to such temptation lead us? Subconsciously harnessing this dilemma, Valin’s book asks what price we pay for transformation, for shifting our shape(s); and does the price we pay for divergence of one sort or another lead us to a better acceptance of identities? Has the stinging nettle been heard?
These questions—heavy as they are—find purchase in many situations presented through Valin’s speakers and Valin herself, who speaks through the poems’ speakers and at other times appears transparently autobiographical–surely a deliberate strategy for Shapeshifters, though my guesses could be wrong or deluded. That is probably Valin’s intention–readers may be looking at something wholly other than what is assumed at first glance. Shapeshifters speaks at times for those of us who hide, obfuscate, or anticipate danger in declaring our identities. Valin is a Métis of Nehiyaw, Saulteaux, French-Canadian and Czech ancestry who offers some of the most forceful anti-colonial resistance writing I’ve seen published on Turtle Island.
With a perhaps unintended allusion to kitschy American films such as “The Blob,” but with deliberate magic realism and expedient satire, “The Geologist” delivers a punch to the reader’s gut. A speaker at first obsessed with her own vanities (“she laments her acne”) is transformed with the unfolding of a subtext of extractivist colonialism, in short stanzaic narratives that follow each inward monologic utterance. The poem begins:
while she now laments her acne
We scorn the Earth
for its topography.
Map, drill, mine. Catalogue
findings and assign value.
Gold, emerald, hematite.
Valin has invoked a moral register in these powerful, brief lines moving between a personal focus and the monetization of the natural world, innocent in its topography yet hated enough to drill and destroy.
Several of the lines and scenarios in “No Buffalos,” a torque on the confessional narrative, are indices of another deep vein of moral concern in Shapeshifters–Indigenous identities existing in colonial environments. The poem turns the typically condescending attitude of colonizers used to precipitate shame at the idea of coming from a colonized community on its head. In naming and shaming the systemic classifications used in settler colonial projects, Valin’s poem is reminiscent of the use of such terms by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, e.g., “Write it down! / I am an Arab” (“Identity Card”).
She begins “No Buffalos” with “I’m capital M Métis. The proof: / official cards, forms, anatomy.” The poem continues:
What about our history? I glimpsed
it in fifth grade. PowerPoint
presentations of figure-eight flags, fiddles —
men shot and hanged……Ethnicity checklists assured constant
presence of well-meaning, white education assistants.
You’re Métis? You need a tutor.
You’re struggling. You’re distant.
“No Buffalos” is a multi-part poem and continues with stark descriptions of living inside the apartheid system meted out to Indigenous peoples once settler colonies have advanced the system for long enough: “Best friend’s a blonde Mi’kmaq / girl who wasn’t the right kind of Métis / for an official card.” Running through the collection is a recurrent gamut of identity cards, documents, papers, and classifications which settler colonial administrations have issued to Indigenous peoples.
Valin’s satirical deadpan also evokes Gregory Scofield’s “How Many White People Noticed (and recounted the scene over dinner).” Scofield’s speaker is on the scene with an Indigenous woman in his community who has lost consciousness—the unidentified woman’s vulnerability and the helplessness and concern of Scofield’s speaker are apparent. Valin also depicts the vulnerability of an individual in the raw face of a colonial system when she writes of herself in “No Buffalos,”
I feel guilty about struggling
with my duality. Hungry for
stereotypical narratives of helpful
Cree women voluntarily teaching
European men to survive the freezing
plains. How old were my mothers
when they were wed? I can’t
reconcile the cavalier, colonial
manifest destiny of male ancestors
with my hypersensitivity. Was I born
out of violence?
Later in the poem, she admits she is a consumer like everyone else, “shoulder-deep / in colonial capitalism,” yet, “In the Great Bear / Rainforest surrounded by giant cedars,” Valin struggles for words. Here the idea of being a shapeshifter is commonplace; it evokes no magic realism but reminds us of an inescapable condition of reaping the benefits of the colonial system that has robbed one’s own people of their cultures, natural resources, and ways of life. Valin once again draws on the moral dimension of transformations of one sort or another; the cost of othering others but also othering her own people.
The poet experiences othering again in a series of vignettes titled “Strand” inside of the long poem “Telogen Effluvium,” ostensibly anchored to the post-traumatic condition of losing strands of hair. Each section titled “Strand” sets out a colonial scenario. The first depicts the familiar scenario of colonized peoples’ orally transmitted stories only being accepted once officially recognized Western researchers have registered documentation to corroborate the stories. “Two years ago, researchers at last examined the fibres from a blanket in Seattle and found hairs from that now extinct, tiny, woolly breed of dog. Hard proof. This is what it takes to validate oral stories, right? This is what it takes to be believed.”
In another “Strand” chapter of the poem taking place during a visit to her in-laws in Cotonou, Benin, Valin’s speaker (Valin herself?) experiences a different kind of othering:
I was the only white-coded person in the [hair] salon. The assumption
was that I was French, and not the usual guess-work quilt I copped in
Canada: one day Lebanese, one day Latina, one day ethnic of some sort.
In the end she hoped the new woven braids in her hair would give her the confidence of the women on the other side of her family, who “always seemed to be able to say no.” These are the boundaries the poet may strive for throughout the book, the acceptance of a mixed identity and not the vaguely “ethnic of some sort” so prevalent in Canadian erasures and ignorance of Indigneous and Métis peoples. This invisibilizing tendency is the hallmark of settler-colonial states.
Through a multitude of scenarios and metaphors treating autobiographical narratives as well as the familiarities of living inside colonial capitalism the poet’s “jarred and jostled” stories are “unprepared to describe” her joy. Her lines contain multitudes under the deceptive surface of simple language. They triumph over a system of hidden history and ignorance from whence she writes on Turtle Island. Délani Valin startles us thus to remind us how to be human.
Nyla Matuk is a poet and editor.