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House of Anansi Press

river woman

Written by Katherena Vermette

Published September 25, 2018 | ISBN 9781487003463
POETRY / Canadian

Cover of river woman

Regular price $19.95 CAD

112 pages | 8.5 in × 5.5 in
Print Format

Also Available as an Ebook

About this book

river woman

Katherena Vermette

Governor General’s Award–winning Métis poet and acclaimed novelist Katherena Vermette’s second work of poetry, river woman, examines and celebrates love as postcolonial action. Here love is defined as a force of reclamation and repair in times of trauma, and trauma is understood to exist within all times. The poems are grounded in what feels like an eternal present, documenting moments of clarity that lift the speaker (and reader) out of our preconceptions of historical time, while never losing a connection to history. This is what we mean when we describe a work of art as being “timeless.”

Like the river they speak to, these poems return again and again to the same source in search of new ways to reconstruct what has been lost. Vermette suggests that it’s through language and the body — particularly through language as it lives inside the body — that a fragmented self might resurface as once again whole. This idea of breaking apart and coming back together is woven throughout the collection as the speaker revels in the physical pleasures of learning Anishnaabemowin (“the language / I should have already known”), as she contemplates the ongoing negotiation between the natural world and urban structures, and as she finds herself falling into trust with the ones she loves.

Divided into four sections, and written in her distinctively lean and elegantly spare style, where short lines belie the depth within them, river woman explores Vermette’s relationship to nature — its destructive power and beauty, its timelessness, and its place in human history. Here is a poet who is a keen observer of an environment that is both familiar and otherworldly, where her home is alive with the sounds and smells of the land it grows out of, where “Words / transcend ceremony / into everyday” and “Nothing / is inanimate.”

About the Author

Katherena Vermette

KATHERENA VERMETTE is a Métis writer from Treaty One territory, the heart of the Métis nation, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Her first book, North End Love Songs (The Muses Company), won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. Her NFB short documentary, this river, won the Coup de Coeur at the Montreal First Peoples Festival and a Canadian Screen Award. Her first novel, The Break, is the winner of three Manitoba Book Awards and the First Novel Award, and it was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and CBC Canada Reads.

Awards and Praise

Praise for Katherena Vermette and river woman:


“A book that is at once deeply personal and politically charged.” — Quill & Quire

“These spare, imagistic poems live up to the words of the Vietnamese spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted in an epigraph: ‘If our hearts are big, we can be like the river.’” — Toronto Star

“‘A snake carved / into prairie grass,’ river woman is a collection that will stay with you, question you, live in you. One cannot simply tread the surface of its open invitation. There are many layers here below the poetic surface, and Vermette is singer-guide to the true depths of this river. It’s a work to be read, shared, and read again.” — Liz Howard, author of the Griffin Poetry Prize–winning collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent

“In river woman, Vermette take us inside river, as a concept, a reality, and another world, and gently reveals the power, the resistance, and the sheer love of water, of life, and of all things Indigenous. Vermette’s poetics are sparse, haunting, and steeped in river story, and her poems come to me as river songs. There is a presencing rhythm to this work, revealing that which is and always has been, flowing right in front of us.” — Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, author of This Accident of Being Lost

“In river woman, Katherena Vermette marshals the maternal energy of the river to spin the lyric poem into something that is awash with vitality. This ethic of care, which each section bears and ricochets about, has at its core a project of repair or nourishment, not just of the natural, but of those of us entangled with it. This us, Vermette deftly shows, is not an empty thing, but is instead teeming with Indigenous life — ‘we are the earth you are hurting.’ We are the river and, in this, we are without end, regardless of what history swells in us. Pick up this book and listen for the musicality of our beautiful rebellion!” — Billy-Ray Belcourt, author of This Wound is a World, winner of the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize

river woman again displays Vermette’s extraordinary gift for narrative. ‘Ziibiwan (like a river),’ these are poems that gather pieces of personal experience and Indigenous history and in their sweep are bigger than the spare language we see on the page.” — Armand Garnet Ruffo, author of The Thunderbird Poems

Praise for Katherena Vermette and The Break:

“The lives of the girls and women in The Break are not easy, but their voices — complex, urgent, and unsparing — lay bare what it means to survive, not only once, but multiple times, against the forces of private and national histories. Katherena Vermette is a tremendously gifted writer, a dazzling talent.” — Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing

“The narrator of this story is dead. He misses feeling the skin of others, but he likes being about memory. It’s who we are siem. Katherena Vermette rendered the women of the North End gorgeous in her poetry: North End Love Songs. In The Break, she renders them sweet, beautiful battlers who love under the most horrific of circumstances. She points no fingers, just plots the story, person by person, memory by memory, until it is clear that we must give up the feeling of hopelessness that haunts the lives of these women. The Break is itself a beautiful love song of desire to live a full and rich life as cherished women — even when we cannot have that. We can hope. Resilient as the star world from which they arise these women reconcile with their lives without giving in to the horrors they have faced. Vermette captures the reader from beginning to end. She creates unforgettable characters with honor, respect and a deft hand. In so doing she holds the reader’s tender love in her capable hands and weaves us right into the story. The Break is unforgettable.” — Lee Maracle, author of Celia’s Song

“Vermette is a staggering talent. Reading The Break is like a revelation; stunning, heartbreaking and glorious. From her exquisitely rendered characters to her fully realized world and the ratcheting tension, I couldn’t put it down. Absolutely riveting.” — Eden Robinson, author of Monkey Beach

“In Vermette’s poetic prose, The Break offers a stark portrayal of the adversity that plagues First Nations women in this country — and the strength that helps them survive.” — Toronto Star

“It’s unsurprising that a novel by a poet would be beautifully written . . . The Break is an astonishing act of empathy, and its conclusion is heartbreaking.” — Globe and Mail

“With adeptness and sensitivity, Vermette puts a human face to issues that are too-often misunderstood, and in so doing, she has written a book that is both one of the most important of the year and one of the best. Though Katherena Vermette is not an emerging writer — she has written seven children’s books and won a Governor General’s award for her poetry collection North End Love Songs — for many, this novel will be their first encounter. And it will be a revelation. Vermette is a fully matured literary talent confronting some of our society’s fundamental problems through understated prose that exudes wisdom and emotion. Every page hides beauty amid suffering; love winning out over violence and hate. Stella, at one point in the novel, thinks about ‘[a] story that didn’t happen to her but that she keeps and remembers.’ The Break is like that; it is a story that will stick with you a long time.” — National Post

The Break doesn’t read like an impressive first novel; it reads like a masterstroke from someone who knows what they’re doing . . . Vermette is skilled at writing with a language that is conversational and comfortable and with a poetic ease that makes the hard things easier to swallow. The result is a book that is at times emotionally demanding, funny, suspenseful, and always engaging.” The Winnipeg Review

The Break manages to be political even when it isn’t. It’s a book that explores social issues without ever preaching, or even seeming to be about them at all. It examines the only element of those issues that matter: their human impact. It’s astonishing in its empathy.” — The Uniter

The Break is a condemnation of reprehensible individual behaviour, but also of a broader society incapable of dealing effectively with problems of addiction, poverty, homelessness, and despair . . . The Break offers clear insight into people struggling to secure a place in the world.” — Quill & Quire

“[A] brave and important novel.” — The Eastern Door

“A visionary debut novel.” — CBC Books

“Stunning . . . [Vermette] chooses her words with a poet’s precision.” — Literary Review of Canada

“One of the great Indigenous novels” — First Nations Voice

“Equal parts page-turner and stunning literary accomplishment.” — Open Book

“This is a debut novel by the Governor General's Literary Award-winning Métis poet Katherena Vermette. The story takes place in Winnipeg`s North End. And it starts when Stella thinks she sees a violent assault taking place in a barren strip of land outside her window, known as The Break. Turns out, she is right. In fact, there is a threat of violence that hovers over all the women in the story, three generations of them, and the story is told in many voices. Katherena writes with empathy and understanding about people who are living with the pain of intergenerational trauma. The Winnipeg winter she evokes is cold and cruel. But there is such love, loyalty and support in this story. If you enjoy a gripping family saga, I would recommend The Break.” — Shelagh Rogers, CBC The Next Chapter

“A debut novel brimming with grace and wisdom, that puts the spotlight on the systemic violence being committed in our country, [The Break] is both a wake-up call and a call-to-arms. Vital.” — Globe and Mail

“Katherena Vermette’s debut novel, The Break, takes a tough, close-up look at an extended family in Winnipeg, tackling along the way a side of female life that’s often hard to acknowledge: the violence of girls and women sometimes display towards other girls and women, and the power struggles among them. In The Break, the characters may be Métis, but the motivations and emotions are surely universal. This is an accomplished writer who will go far.” — Margaret Atwood

“This intimate and emotional look at their lives succeeds both as a novel and as a work of social justice.” — Booklist, starred review

“Vermette portrays a wide array of strong, complicated, absolutely believable women, and through them and their hardships offers readers sharp views of race and class issues. This is slice-of-life storytelling at its finest.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Praise for North End Love Songs:

SELECTION, “On the Same Page” (Manitoba’s provincial book club)

“In spare, minimalist language, North End Love Songs attends to the demands of Indigenous and European poetics, braiding an elegant journey that takes us from Winnipeg’s North End out into the world.” — Governor General’s Literary Award jury citation

“In North End Love Songs, Katherena Vermette uses spare language and brief, telling sketches to illuminate the aviary of a prairie neighbourhood. Vermette’s love songs are unconventional and imminent, an examination and a celebration of family and community in all weathers, the beautiful as well as the less clement conditions. This collection is a very moving tribute, to the girls and the women, the boys and the men, and the loving trouble that has forever transpired between us.” — Joanne Arnott

“The love that sits at the core of Katherena Vermette’s North End Love Songs is not simple or serene, but pugnacious and ferocious, something to be alternately fled from as well as embraced. … Vermette’s poetry explores a landscape that she at once rejects … but elsewhere speaks of with a great sense of love and longing….[T]hese North End Love Songs are loud and heightened, but also possess a surprising vulnerability. The collection’s subjects are often wounded and sometimes disappear, as both the inner and outer landscapes that Vermette explores have the tendency to turn hostile. … North End Love Songs embraces the difficulties, the stumbling and the groping, and all the chilly, ugly elements than can nonetheless combine into a sense of place and home.” —The Walrus

“From a mixed-blood Métis woman with Mennonite roots, Kate weaves a story that winds its way through the north end (Nor-tend) of Winnipeg. It’s a story of death, birth, survival, beauty, and ugliness; through it all there are glimmers of hope, strength, and a will to survive whatever this city throws at you.” — Duncan Mercredi

North End Love Songs … combines elegiac and fiercely ecstatic melodies to sing of a complicated love for a city, a river, and a neighbourhood. It is deep rooted in its location, yet will reach out to readers everywhere with its harsh and beautiful tunings of growing up female in Winnipeg's North End.” — Prairie Fire