Gay Incantations

by Billy-Ray Belcourt

copyright ©2017 by Billy-Ray Belcourt

i fall into the opening between subject and object
and call it a condition of possibility.
when i speak only the ceiling listens.
sometimes it moans.
if i have a name
let it be the sound his lips make.
there is no word in my language for this.
sometimes my kookum begins to cry
and a world falls out.
grieve is the name i give to myself.
i carve it into the bed frame.
i am make-believe.
this is an archive.
it hurts to be a story.
i am the boundary between reality and fiction.
it is a ghost town.
you dreamt me out of existence.
you are at once a map to nowhere and everywhere.
yesterday was an optical illusion.
i kiss a stranger and give him a middle name.
i call this love.
it lasts for exactly twenty minutes.
i chase after that feeling.
which is to say:
i want to almost not exist.
almost is the closest i can get to the sky.
heaven is a wormhole.
i first found it in another man’s armpit.
last night i gave birth to a woman and named her becoming.
she is four cree girls between the ages of 10 and 14 from northern saskatchewan.
we are a home movie
i threw out by accident.
all that is left is the signified.
people die that way.

Notes on the Poem

Billy-Ray Belcourt's 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection This Wound is a World offers, from beginning to end, a poetic journey both elucidating and starkly affecting. Each poem along the way manages that dual achievement differently, but helps build meaningful momentum over the course of the book. In "Gay Incantations", Belcourt renders the poem even more moving by using language in seemingly counterintuitive ways. Let's revisit what he achieves in this unforgettable piece. From the poem's opening lines "i fall into the opening between subject and object and call it a condition of possibility." Belcourt uses the technical language of language, in effect, to show how feelings and interactions can be depicted dispassionately, in fact coldly, as intersections of grammatical components. One can fall into that clinical void between words, be left unsignified ("there is no word in my language for this"), even be dismissed as "make-believe." At the same time, Belcourt calls out those linguistic constructs for creating isolation and alienation when the opposite is so urgently needed. Most poignantly, this plea comes at the aching heart of the poem: "it hurts to be a story." The audio version here of Belcourt reading a slightly varied version of the poem has the not unpleasant cadence of someone carefully but not perfunctorily, but also wistfully rhyming off a list. That delivery balances what we've just observed, a struggle between what is depersonalized because it is seemingly reduced to a mere list, but cumulatively cries out for connection before it is reduced and dismissed. The poem's title is the clue: these are incantations, perhaps unlikely in form and content - sometimes intimate, sometimes grim, but all evoking hope for something magically transformative. If words can't bring back "four cree girls between the ages of 10 and 14 from northern saskatchewan", the plea is that words can somehow at least keep them signified and remembered. The last line of the poem is an emphatic full stop.

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