I considered opening this with an in-depth comment on my absence (the last Stanza Break went up half a year ago), but suffice it to say that some personal matters impacted my ability to write. I'm hopeful that on the occasion of this year's northward equinox, I have also reached an equilibrium and can better practice the kind of attention I want to bring to this space. Thank you for your patience. I'm very glad you're alive.
Published in September 2020 by Wayne State University Press, What the Chickadee Knows (Gijigijigaaneshiinh Gikendaan) by Margaret Noodin should have received more recognition than it did. It's impossible to say what might have been different had it not been published in the early months of the pandemic (happy anniversary, by the way), but I remember seeing an announcement about this book in early 2020 and hoping that it might garner some critical recognition. Alas.
I first encountered Noodin's work as a translator through her collaboration on a handful of pieces in Heid E. Erdrich's 2017 book Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media (Michigan State University Press), itself a terrific book. In that book, the poems appear in English by Erdrich, then Anishinaabe by Noodin, and finally English again in Noodin's direct translation:
We used them long ago, clothespins.
Mewenzha n'gii ziinaakwa'igemi
Long ago we clothes-pinned
In her author's note, Erdrich says of this approach that "you are seeing [Noodin] teach me the literal translation in our indigenous language (which helps me understand the grammar) followed by a poetic return to English, which helps us both investigate the differences between the languages." Noodin's role as a teacher carries over into her own work as well.
What the Chickadee Knows is a bilingual collection with Anishinaabemowin and English on facing pages. In her preface, Noodin writes, "the lines and images here were conceived first in Anishinaabemowin and then in English." The poems are short and tightly woven; only one poem requires more than a single page. Still, Noodin notes that there are intentional "gaps [...] between the Anishinaabemowin and English translations to mark doorways between eras and worldviews."
Most bilingual collections of poems, the original language is there for speakers of that language to see the choices made by the translator in bringing the work across. Alternatively, for those of us who are monolingual, seeing the original can offer a sense of the shape of the original. We can see, a little, the ways syntax and rhyme determine how the poem was constructed. That's still true here, but Noodin's process of drafting the English translations alongside the originals makes the book feel more like a kind of Rosetta Stone. She includes a pronunciation guide to the Anishinaabemowin and some "practical facts" regarding the spelling system used (Fiero Double Vowel), tools which are meant to help readers sound out the words. Given the history of forced assimilation and the resultant loss of Indigenous languages in North America, Noodin's bilingual presentation is less an academic exercise and more an act of preservation.
That preservation extends not only to the language, but the world the poems describe and the lens through which the world is viewed. "[These poems] are an attempt to hear and describe the world according to an Anishinaabe paradigm," Noodin writes. Across three dozen poems, Noodin does just that, marking seasonal changes, remarking on natural splendor, and preserving history from the geological to the personal.
I'll end by sharing a full poem about the spring equinox (in my reading, anyway), first in Anishinaabemowin and then in English. Take good care.
gaye apane dibiki-giizisan basangwaabinid
mii abid ningide-niibinong.
Onaabibii'aan ziiginigaadenig ziibiin
agawaatesewaad gaye waaseyaaziwaad
She follows the map of spring
under the sky's one bursting eye
and the ever-blinking moon
into the melt of summer.
He traces the pouring river
through blossoms bursting
winding into the woods.
There while society
turns itself inside out
the shadow and the shining