The Chronogram Poets: Molly McGlennen

(“McGlennen’s title belies the grandeur and tragedy of these diverse and deft lyrics about Native Americans. The author, who is part Anishinaabe, is, like her subjects, rooted in their majestic respect for the ordinary… These poems are elegiac and heart-rending,” writes Djelloul Marbrook of Molly McGlennen’s Fried Fish and Flour Biscuits in the November Chronogram poetry roundup. On Sunday, November 27th McGlennen will read with other poets at the Kleinert/James in Woodstock at 4 pm. Here she describes how learning the Ojibwemowin language leads to a different understanding of the world.)

Living the Language

She tells us the Ojibwe word for blueberry pie
is the recipe to make it:

as we pick the delicate fruit from each calyx
indigo bulb hanging from a perfect five-pointed star
a gift to relieve our hunger —
selecting each one, each star-berry staining our fingers purple-red.
We can’t help but pop some in our mouths.

She had said the juice could cure a cough
and the leaves could be tea –- would be good for our blood.
………..In the summers they’d dry them and store for long winters.

We trod through marshy ground searching for the next lowbush
can taste the pie already, baking slowly in her stove
can see her careful thumbs creating the wave that edges the crust
sliding the fork through the top in four directions
holes for breath

as we punch ours out now –- blueberry hunting.
We are this language of progression, this recipe
renewed each time our pails are filled and
our fingers drip hard blood in gratitude at the end of days.

* * * *

“Living The Language”

I’ve only started learning Ojibwemowin (the language of the Anishinaabe people) as an adult. Part of learning a language is learning the etymology as well as the worldview the language produces for those who use it. I was fascinated to find out that the word for blueberry pie is the actual recipe to prepare it — and that’s why it’s as long as it is! My whole collection of poems, Fried Fish and Flour Biscuits, meditates on the ideas of stories as recipes for living. In writing “Living the Language” where the Ojibwe word for blueberry pie comes in, I center the poem around how Ojibwemowin carries stories within the words themselves. And in that gesture, I began to find that I had a bounty of memories that, woven together, produced a narrative of movement, gratefulness, and healing. I also discovered how memory works in that it creates ways of being in this world — a grandmother’s kindness toward her granddaughter, the exuberance of a day spent together.

Ojibwemowin is a language comprised of approximately 80% verbs and is agglutinative, meaning prefixes and suffixes modify the core verb and thus create new words from it. So, in general, one can glean deep philosophical meaning from knowing and using Ojibwemowin. Ojibwemowin is a language of process and it signifies experience, as opposed to the English language (which is comprised of a majority of nouns and their modifiers), which suggests framing the world in naming, labeling, and therefore ownership. It makes sense that the language we use and how it’s constructed fundamentally shapes the world around us. When a language is no longer being used (because of English-only laws or systems of colonialism like boarding schools and assimilation policies), a whole body of knowledge is lost. In fact, many Indigenous languages are endangered.

When I use Ojibwe words in my poems I’m in some ways attempting to stress the continuance of the language, but I’m also trying to unearth the stories embodied in the language itself. I have to say here again that I have only started to learn Ojibwemowin as an adult and am a beginning-speaker. The only two words I knew growing up in Minneapolis were boozhoo and mii gwech (hello and thank you). But I am thankful for the little I have begun to learn. Those people who are dedicated to language revitalization work are truly inspiring as the practice often brings elders and children together and affirms Native American sovereignty at its most fundamental level. Thus, in many ways, my poem is also a dedication to the language itself and to Anishinaabe people.

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