'Heartbreak is sonic': How Billy-Ray Belcourt's poetry encouraged decolonial love in 2017
Multidisciplinary artist Casey Mecija reflects on how Belcourt's words echoed through her year
This is part of a series of personal essays in which CBC Arts asked Canadian artists to reflect back on the year that was. This essay is by multidisciplinary artist Casey Mecija, who primarily works in the fields of music and film.
On November 2, 2017, I attended an event celebrating the launch of Belcourt's new book This Wound is a World. Described as manifesto and memoir, I was invited to listen to these sounds and the stories they tell about sadness, loneliness and love. Now, I'm flopping around on my couch as I write this reflection on what it felt like to listen to Belcourt read his poems. I'm eight months pregnant, seemingly inconsolable and incredibly uncomfortable. After re-reading This Wound is a World, I'm thinking about the world as a gateway of conditional entry. I'm thinking about the womb as an amniotic speaker and sound as my child's first encounter with the social world. I'm thinking about the sounds that have filled Billy-Ray Belcourt's life and the sonics of patience in the face of an uncertain future.
Belcourt writes: "heartbreak is sonic: it is the sound one makes when one becomes those who refuse to be put to rest." Because I make and respect music I have a desire to hear nuances in soundscapes that often go unnoticed. I am interested in the cadence of cultural life and think of sound as an embodied experience that helps us to feel and know the world. Belcourt's poems offer a sensorial encounter that recognizes the fallibility of words as the lone messenger of history, ontology and knowledge creation. Thus, in confrontation with the failure of words his poems emanate with sound, Belcourt suggests that the heartbreak of Indigenous life has been the loss of a world that was never meant to hold his body.
So, with this knowledge, Belcourt seeks the fleeting hold of a lover to comfort him. Writing about a hookup in a parking garage, sex with white men and the lilting disarray of being lost in someone else's skin, his fleshy entanglements create "a new kind of friction" to help imagine and feel the world otherwise.
My encounter with Billy-Ray Belcourt's book and reading of poems left me with questions that continue to linger: How can you locate hope in love when the world does not know how to love you back? What kind of world is possible when you are rendered a ghost within it?- Casey Mecija, artist
My encounter with Billy-Ray Belcourt's book and reading of poems left me with questions that continue to linger: How can you locate hope in love when the world does not know how to love you back? What kind of world is possible when you are rendered a ghost within it? In This Wound is a World, Belcourt is posing these questions of Indigenous life with the promissory knowledge that sadness and pain will reverberate in any attempt at an answer.
In "Ode to Northern Alberta", one of his poems, we can hear these reverberations. He beautifully writes, "history screams into the night but it sounds too much like the wind". Belcourt is perhaps suggesting that in every "ordinary" sound we hear, like the wind, there is a trace of colonial history. Indeed, a city like Toronto clamours with the reverberations of colonial devastation. Elsewhere, Belcourt has described this as the "sinister hummings" of settler colonialism. Who can hear this humming — and when one does, what becomes of the sound? What other sounds have been lost in the decimation and occupation of Indigenous land and history? What does decolonial love sound like?
As Belcourt intimates in his epilogue, sadness and Indigeneity are often conflated. Despite the everyday pain that undergirds Indigenous life, he suggests that bad feelings are transmutable. He explains that "closeness to sadness and to misery enables a reworking of the codes of bad affect, enabling us to free them from the apoliticized cages of pathology and the private." Belcourt turns to love as a method for shaking off any attachments to bad feelings as constitutive of a knowable future of devastation. He describes this process as becoming "unbodied" and believes that love spills outside the hold of flesh. This is love's first state of possibility. So Belcourt remains hopeful: he makes space for utopian feelings in order to reach for what he so eloquently describes as an "affective commons" that suggests that "a new world [is] on the horizon."