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Confluences: On Removal Acts

Welcome to Confluences, a weekly column on art, kinship and life. Each week we approach one of the themes of the magazine’s current print issue by looking at a creative event, endeavour, or body of work that links to that theme and taps into a larger conversation with the world around us.

“I live in a state with / damp air, where events begin with land / acknowledgements. That air interests me, / wetter than gray, and the austere silence / after thanking Indians broadly, as if none / were present,” writes Erin Marie Lynch in “Statement of Purpose,” a poem from her debut poetry collection, Removal Acts. How do you memorialise the past when the past is still present? What role does knowledge play in reclaiming what has been lost and what may be found, in the lingering aftermath of violence? “For a long time I worried all this was none of my business,” Lynch writes. Now, with these poems, she’s asking questions.

What a breathtaking collection this is. Or rather, in its dexterous explorations of following and preserving threads of life and love - even from within the staunching frameworks of state and self-inflicted violence - Removal Acts might better be described as breath-keeping. Lynch, an American poet who is a descendant of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, looks at wounds and absences both personal and collective, large and small.

‘I live in a state with / damp air, where events begin with land / acknowledgements. That air interests me, / wetter than gray, and the austere silence / after thanking Indians broadly, as if none / were present.’

— Erin Marie Lynch

The book’s title alludes to the events of the 1863 Dakota Removal Act, in which the state of Minnesota voided its pre-existing treaties with the Dakota people, making it illegal for them to reside in the state and forcing them to relocate to Nebraska. But as a title, it’s a sweeping one: referencing the vast networks of loss, of dark matter, in our understandings of history, memory, place, culture, selfhood and indigeneity. As Lynch herself explains to BOMB Magazine, the title “resonates through the legal implications of the term, but then it also invokes geographical removal, physical displacement, temporal removal, spatial removal, vomit. Plus, it does what I think a good title does, which is that it allows you to look at any poem in the book through the lens of that title, or vice versa.”

These autobiographical poems trace paths through an eating disorder, a Dakota language class conducted over a Zoom screen, the death of a beloved dog, new understandings of a mother’s childhood and the enigmatic quality of old family photographs. Through it all, Lynch seeks what remains and what may be recovered or recalled. Opening the book as a foreword is the poem “To This I Come,” which reads as an artist’s statement and personal lineage of sorts. It’s a story that begins with “the claim I lay to those no longer with me”: ancestors buried in Standing Rock, the US-Dakota war of 1862, prairies and dandelion seeds and digital folders of JPEG scans of archival images.

Images - or a lack of them - come into play quite literally throughout the collection, which is formally experimental and at times genre-bending. Early in the collection, Lynch describes encountering a portrait of her great-great-great-grandfather - influential 19th century Dakota leader Mato Sabi Ceya - taken on the occasion of him signing land treaties with the US government under duress, on the website of the British Museum, who have somehow acquired it. She screenshots the image, prints and frames it at home. The poem’s shape mirrors this story: a frame of text bracketing an empty centre where, instead of the image, reads a copyright warning and the message: “Using this image: Sorry, this image is not available for download.”

The personal history of a family is carved into by the colonial powers-that-be. Later, a poem about her great-great-grandmother outlines the negative space of a portrait by omission. It feels clear that Lynch is acutely aware of the power dynamics that images hold, particularly in the wake and lingering repercussions of centuries of genocide - both literal and cultural - against Native Americans. Despite being on her own personal journey of newfound knowledge and exploration of her heritage, she refrains from spilling these archival findings onto the page in full. Here, for once, her Native ancestors may retain dignity and agency over their likenesses.

“Memory, like weather, shows up each day,” Lynch writes in “Epigenesis”. But how is that memory - that knowledge - framed, by whom and why? In an act of removal, what fills the void? What doesn’t? “I have spent too much time quiet,” concludes the poet, “I have spent too much time talking / I am learning to save every part of this animal.”

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