In her second collection of poetry, Passage, Gwen Benaway examines what it means to experience violence and speaks to the burden of survival. Traveling to Northern Ontario and across the Great Lakes, Passage is a poetic voyage through divorce, family violence, legacy of colonization, and the affirmation of a new sexuality and gender. Previously published as a man, Passage is the poet's first collection written as a transwoman. Striking and raw in sparse lines, the collection showcases a vital Two Spirited identity that transects borders of race, gender, and experience. In Passage, the poet seeks to reconcile herself to the land, the history of her ancestors, and her separation from her partner and family by invoking the beauty and power of her ancestral waterways. Building on the legacy of other ground-breaking Indigenous poets like Gregory Scofield and Queer poets like Tim Dlugos, Benaway's work is deeply personal and devastating in sharp, clear lines. Passage is a book burning with a beautiful intensity and reveals Benaway as one of the most powerful emerging poets writing in Indigenous poetics today.
Gwen Benaway is a bisexual feminist Gemini trans girl of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. She has published three collections of poetry, Ceremonies for the Dead and Passage, and Holy Wild. Her fourth collection of poetry, Aperture, is forthcoming from Book*hug in Spring 2020. Her writing has been published in many national publications, including CBC Arts, Maclean’s Magazine, and the Globe and Mail. She is currently editing an anthology of Fantasy short stories by trans girl writers and writing a book of creative non-fiction, trans girl in love. She lives in Toronto, Ontario and is always open to auditioning new Queer polyam feminist lovers, as long as they believe in Astrology and are not a Taurus. She is currently a Ph.D student at the University of Toronto in the Women and Gender Studies Institute.
"I wish it was Christmas / I need twinkle lights / and excuses to drink."
Passage was my introduction to Gwen Benaway and I loved this book. The poems are honest, intense, bold, and dark. I am grateful that Gwen decided to share this story. There's a lot of pain in this book, and she discusses it so beautifully. I highly recommend picking up this poetry collection.
One of the most moving parts of Benaway’s essay on cultural appropriation and erasure in Canadian literature is one of the final sentences: “Good art is not an act of violence but an extension of love.” This is without a doubt what she has accomplished in Passage, an infinitely generous, vulnerable, and beautiful book that shows just what wonderful work readers have access to when Indigenous writers are given a platform to tell their own stories. Check out my full review here.
i need to read this collection at least one thousand and one more times to let it sink in, really. there are a thousand and one journeys and loves and knowings and undoings. i appreciated the simplicity of the structure benaway chose for this collection: a part for each great lake, short lines, consistent lengths of stanza in visual rhythm without constraint or force. leanne betasamosake simpson's blurb said it best, really: "with equal parts warm light and bone raw, this stunning collection burns away the legacy of erasure and upheaval. if the lake could write poetry, this collection would be it."
This is an Own Voices Trans Two-Spirit Indigenous Canadian book of poetry, and it is FUCKING AMAZING. Organized into sections dedicated to the Great Lakes, Benaway explores grief, abuse, colonization, desire, sexuality, and gender. Her writing is simultaneously sparse and vivid, luxurious and simple, and it moves and flows like the water it seems to be inspired by.
My personal favorites were 'Trout', 'Self-Love B', 'Trans', 'River', and especially 'Lake Erie', because I grew up on that lake and it felt like going back to my childhood. I felt a specific connection to Benaway in 'Lake Erie' that went beyond sympathy or compassion - it was complete empathy, complete understanding of what she was saying, and it was absolutely beautiful.
Anishinaabe + Metis + trans + abuse + small town fundamentalist parents + surviving the city knowing people want to kill you + love + this wonderful water imagery as the poems are collected into sections names after the great lakes. I should read more poetry.
An intense, raw, beautiful book of poetry by a Two-Spirited Trans poet of Anishinaabe and Metis descent. She chronicles her life in all its joy and pain, and does so in in credibly moving ways. Benaway is a voice well worth reading.
Call me a fan. Mapping by water, Gwen Benaway, a two-spirited trans writer of Anishinaabe and Métis descent, brings us a brave and powerful second poetry title broken into ancestral waterways: Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Superior. Benaway is an uncluttered writer, but her work is powerful in its simplicity, whether talking about her dad’s abuse, being a trans child, race, sex, love, heartbreak or the legacy of colonization.
There are some real gems in here but mostly I found the style a little too sparse and didn't quite get enough out of most of the poems. Still worth reading if you have interest in gender diversity and the experiences of trauma.
I misplaced this book of poetry around Christmas time, found it again just last week, and am very grateful to have found it and finished it. I think Gwen’s work is strongest when it’s plain, direct, and less evocative of ‘poet’s poetry,’ often the endings to poems that feel summed in the final lines, or rushed to get out of (e.g.: “i know only desire / as a trout knows the shore, / in death, defeat, / and a fisher’s lure,” the rest of the poem preceding it so much more visceral, queer, and not undermined by this slant rhyme, which might have its place in a poem full of stylistic play, of consistent humour).
These ‘expected’ moments are rare, and the work runs the range from quotidian insight to polemical proofs. The wonder in the voice(s?) is really the best kind of poetry, the what if, the dedication to a thought of ‘what if’ like in “Death,” where “I wonder if immortals transition, / a vampire in heels at MAC, / looking for flawless coverage, / powder to soften cheekbones.”
I think there’s probably a lot of sections in the book that don’t reveal themselves to a settler who is reading it, and that’s not a bad thing, it’s an important thing probably even, where “our history dissolves / when they try to fathom it.”
It’s a book with a lot of suffering but a lot of joy too, and it makes me feel like celebrating myself and everyone around me, like coming out of a big winter, “when spring comes / I’ll be holy, / when summer comes, / I’ll be transparent.”
I think Gwen is an amazing essayist and a really strong poet, and I look forward to reading her work in the future, and recommend this book to anyone with any interest in contemporary poetry.
Gwen Benaway carves her poems in Passage to reflect the waters of the Great Lakes, and a body and spirit in transition. These poems are prayerful and fluid, telling the story of loneliness and belonging.
Benaway brilliantly layers existential questions with answers, and at times more questions, drawn from the earth, the water and a soul yearning for respect, love and understanding. What you will come away with is a sense of the inherent need to connect, to be one's self, and to be at peace.
The journey Benaway describes in Passage's poems is often a painful one, but it takes her, and us, through enormous beauty as well, not only in the relationships (often with nature or with herself) or, even, in the sorrows, she describes, but in the language and cadence she enlists to carry us there. This is a phenomenal collection to which I will definitely return again. I look forward to reading more from this vibrant poet.
I love the separation of sections into the Great Lakes, associating a transition to physically becoming a woman with the power and flow of water; it's so subtly and artfully done that I didn't quite realize what was happening until the third or fourth section. Benaway pulls us through, interspersing moments of quiet and sometimes violent beauty of the outdoors, the north, the lakes, the wild with moments of beauty and violence and pain and joy of being a transgender Anishinaabe and Metis woman. Some real moments of powerful observation here, descriptions that take your breath away. (Also a few spelling errors [it's vs. its, hung vs. hanged, prostrate vs. prostate] that yanked me out in the middle of a poem, hence the four stars.)
With each section named after a different Great Lake, it was impossible for me not to relate (I grew up a bike ride away from Erie, and did family holiday stuff at the other lakes, I have always lived in SW Ontario where I am basically between the lakes).
Benaway is such a talented poet, and I love her work, and this collection is especially fabulous. Shaping each set of poems around different personal memories just worked so well.
I believe she has another some upcoming work, and I can't wait to read more from her. Definitely recommended.
I loved this so much! Benaway's poetry is gorgeous even when it is really painful. I connected so strongly with the background of the Great Lakes that runs through it. Each section has such a strong sense of place. There are a lot of difficult (though not graphic) things in here (physical and sexual abuse, transphobia, anti-Indigenous racism) but Benaway infuses the pain with a strong and inspiring will to survive.
I am in complete awe of this collection of poetry. So many times my jaw dropped as I read brilliant piece after brilliant piece. I was constantly stuck between reading this all in one setting and needing time to let its words sink in properly. A true masterpiece. I am extremely grateful for these words and their painful truths and beauty. Easily my favourite book of poetry. Thank you Gwen for putting words to the page in a way that truly spoke to all the pieces of my being.
This book is raw and wounded in a way that rings with healing--both the difficulty and possibility of it. If you like poetry, you need to read this book. Preferably with a friend, definitely with a box of tissues. The water imagery was beautiful, and the descriptions of life in small towns and big cities were brutally real. Not an easy book, but totally worth the read.
This is the collection for anyone who has ever lived through and been shaped by trauma. It's a tough read, but one that will leave you feeling more whole by the end of it. Reading this was a heart-wrenching, visceral experience. And I'd do it again in a heartbeat!