A Close Reading of Jordan Abel’s Injun

***If you are not familiar with Jordan’s work, I cannot recommend him enough.***

The first portion of Injun is comprised of 509 instances of the slur occurring in the master source text Abel created. He used the “find” function on his word processor after copying and pasting 91 open-sourced old western manuscripts into one large document (jordanable.ca/Injun).

The methodology arose from Abel’s “impulse to understand and to deconstruct how racism comes together” (Von Koeverden, 2017.). This essay explores the latter portion of Injun where Abel shifted to the repetition of other words. He recreated his process in individual smaller poems that both explored their nuances in relation to the racism found in his original word search and recreated the process on a smaller scale. Abel’s Injun employs repetition and variation in a way that causes the reader to pause and consider both old and current narratives and how they inform societal behaviour. The social constructs of the white man’s world found in the source texts, though fictional stories are the same social constructs that built the power imbalance experienced today by Indigenous peoples—Abel uses found sentence fragments in block form to focus one construct at a time.

Analysis:

In this latter portion of the book (pages 32 to 43), the first poem has the only occurrence of “injun” juxtaposed to the exploration of “whiteness”. Cut off lines, even with the lack of continuation from line to line, Abel employs continuity through specific repeated bold words.

Each line dissects the nuance of the word in the bold text. In the case of “whiteness”, its meaning ranges from an admirable attribute to an unattainable standard for indigenous peoples. The first two lines in section 1 highlight this contrast: “himself clean strain that night, the whitest little Injun on the reservation/s along the Missouri River had the whitest lot of officers that was eve”. Whiteness as an attribute first on the indigenous boy, almost in disbelief that an indigenous boy could be white and the second as a descriptor of those in power. “Whiteness” as an attribute is coupled with words like “biggest”, “strongest”, “fastest” and “the finest in the world”. It is clear the underlying theme in the source text is the supremacy of whiteness and being white.

“Whiteness” has a recurrence of knowing and what it means to know. The word know/knew appears six times in the fifteen lines. Four of those times in conjunction with the phrase “the whitest man I ever”. The continuous comparison of race, with whiteness as the highest standard, highlights historic and inherent racism found in the source text and provides a powerful criticism of the cowboy narrative that is still employed in entertainment. The public domain sources are well known, and still widely read western genre novels. It’s impossible to read the first poem in this section without feeling uneasy and uncomfortable.

“Frontier”(poem 2) uses a similar pattern but with a variation on the effect. The word “frontier” traditionally conjures up images of untamed wilderness and potential danger, even lawlessness. Abel’s found texts illustrate the frontier as something to be violently protected from its original inhabitants. “Six shooters”(line 7), “guarding”(line 5), and “posses”(line 18) were the “frontiersmen”(line 18) that “protected against the indians”(line 5). Abel explores territory through repetition of images of villages and towns contrasted with frontier. Themes of economic oppression and exploitation serve as a critique in the form of phrases like “mixed population”(line 1), “industry”(line 10), “the squatter type”(line 13), “gambler”(line 14), “advocate”(line 16), and “patriarchal”(line 18). In this section, the oppression of the indigenous peoples is touted as a heroic endeavour to create a “stronger republic”(line 9). It’s clear, in conjunction with “whiteness”, that this advocacy and protection was on behalf of the whiteness outlined in the first poem.

A narrative of criticism and deconstruction of “the racism in old western novels”(Von Koeverden, 2017) strengthens as layers are added with each poem in the series. Words like”truth”, “reserve”, and “silence” are in current discourse as a result of the truth and reconciliation movement. In “truth”, the word “tell” appears four times in conjunction with “telling us/her/him” the truth—specifically the speaker is questioning if the information being relayed is in fact accurate. Even with the bleak and painful account of racism on the frontier, in the face of obvious injustice, Abel included the word tenderness. Tenderness signals hope to the reader of resilience in the middle of dark themes. Moving past tenderness (poem 4), money, gold, resources are stolen commodities by the “heroic” frontiersmen as the indigenous villains are required to maintain silence (poem 7) as lines are drawn and territory (poem 12) is divided up.

Conclusion

Though pulled from fictional source texts, these poems represent a continuing narrative of the civilized white man (the great white saviour) bringing stability, wisdom, and culture to the savage indigenous population of a given colonized land. In the spirit of reconciliation, an informed reader sees the direct reflection of Canada’s history in the fictitious accounts. These poems could easily be written from the truth reports emerging in current discourse. It’s because of this believability that Abel’s poems create a deep sorrow and longing for change in the reader.

The form employed by Abel is stripped down of explanatory language and forces the reader to interact with themes that are uncomfortable to rest in. The bolded text draws the reader’s eyes and they are required to focus on the repeated word as they interpret the surrounding text. The work is presented with the absence of a direct speaker and without the author’s direct voice, yet the message is clear. This historical racism and injustice still echo loud in Canadian culture.

Sources:

Jordanabel.ca/Injun, accessed Feb 28, 2019.

Von Korverden. (2017, June 28) How Jordan Abel deconstructed the racism in old western novels and won the Griffin Poetry Prize. https://www.cbc.ca/books/how-jordan-abeldeconstructed-the-racism-in-old-western-novels-and-won-the-griffin-poetry-prize-1.4182088

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