Billy-Ray Belcourt begins NDN Coping Mechanisms (House of Anansi Press) with a definition. “NDN is internet shorthand used by Indigenous peoples in North America to refer to ourselves. It is also sometimes an acronym meaning ‘Not Dead Native.’” Then, from the very first line, which scatters into glittering (as in tooth-sharp) poetry-prose-theory that rams and flash-flourishes, Belcourt tries to define again—“What constitutes an NDN? A myth / doused in midnight? A soul / in the shape of a clenched fist?” —and again.
This defining and undefining (“Un.- Un.- Un.-: a prefix is a portal”) is, in part, a thrashing against the fact that “Of course we have come to know ourselves / by what we aren’t.” In other words, through the violent dissonance of projection. “How alchemical the white eye is!” says the speaker when racially profiled in an emergency room. Another speaker, looking over his shoulder, speaking to preconception: “Is this not what an NDN does in a poem?”
Belcourt writes the white/settler gaze into a tangible frame: something rigid, but also with bounds. He grips it with a glare, flips it, steps out of its periphery. “Everywhere, there are “I”s on me/us. They fall from me/us like mud.” His speaker describes the “terrible beauty of the reserve” and the cars that “pass through in droves, but no one looks, so we disappear, / hands intertwined, into the freedom of a shimmering anonymity.” In another poem, “whiteness is abolished, so it is also a poem in which we kick our shoes off for the first time,” a line reminiscent of José Olivarez’s “there are no / white people in heaven.”
His most explicit framing: that of a camera lens. In “Cree Girl Blows Up the Necropolis of Ottawa,” the speaker imagines creating a short film that, unlike Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls, would not be about “the bloodied hands of history or what it is to be but an object of sorrow.” Instead, it would be about a Cree girl who “could be a Cree girl and desire a world outside the field of vision.” “NDN possibility would flower everywhere outside the frame.” Another speaker imagines a reshoot for The Revenant, whose Wikipedia page calls it a journey through “unorganized territory.” “Had this been a movie made by NDNs, […] There would have been no footage, / just the sounds of NDNs / organizing territory. / whatever the fuck that means!”
Knowing that he is not only watched, but also fetishized and objectified—“Under which conditions is a body simply raw material for the industries of / analysis? I digress”—Belcourt watches himself—“I miss Billy-Ray Belcourt”—and draws concentric, constrictive topography outward from there.
His self, inside a name, which, “in the end, is little more / Than an incitement to incalculable damage”; a body, which is “that which happens to you” or “a sick / fucking joke that I was never in on”; “a / house / no one tries to / live / in” that has “MOURNING BREATH,” dips its “feet / into the dirt of yet another man’s chest”—“I am especially NDN when trying to convince/ someone else i am lovable”—and a country, where “an NDN is the ellipsis” and “cancer or heart disease or mercury poisoning […] are history by other names.” “Funny how suddenly the body turns / into a Canadian monument!”
And he dissipates—“I Become Less of Who I Am By the Second”—into literal and literary depersonalization. The speaker says of himself, “Tomorrow, I will watch a boy / who looks like me / walk into oncoming traffic.” When Colten Boushie’s murderer is acquitted, the speaker, now older than Colten, thinks, “It feels unethical to age.” (“Only the good die young or was it the NDNs???”) Even on the level of form, Belcourt tirelessly uses in-text citations, from (Charli XCX) to (Judith Butler), performing at least two radical acts: naming, without ego, who built him and whom he builds with, and also equating institutional and extra-institutional ways of knowing.
Billy-Ray Belcourt hoists layers of existence up, down, juxtaposes, picks “bits and pieces of history from [his kokum’s] hair” and bangs at “a lover’s chest as though it were a door. And it is. Just like that. Unquestionably.” Even in parentheses, his words shake with their own power: “(power, however mundane, is never miniscule).” He asks, “How to punctuate an aesthetics of suffering, its visibilization regime, with a counternarrative of NDN possibility?” If language has “already left? Found a gentler species? Warmer mouths?” “Hypothesis:”—not solution, not answer, but something to trace outward from—“be negative space.”