LOLO — At Traveler’s Rest State Park Saturday morning, Jennifer Finley, a 44-year-old Salish and Chippewa/Cree poet from the Flathead Indian Reservation, asked her audience to close their eyes.
She guided them through a meditation in which they imagined themselves as children whose homes were overrun by foreigners. Those who survived the invasion and grew up saw their own children taken away to boarding schools where their hair was cut, they were beaten for speaking their language and they were prohibited from praying the way their families taught them.
“Open your eyes,” Finley said.
“This story is real, and this is the story of my family. This is who I come from and this is what my people have had to deal with. It is a miracle that I’m here. It is a miracle that I still believe in magic. It is a miracle that I still pray every single day. And it is a miracle that I still believe in love.”
Finley’s poems dwell in those miracle places where, despite pain and hardship, it is possible to find healing.
Standing at a podium, Finley read poems from several of her books, including her fourth and most recent book of poetry, “My Hands Have Vertigo,” which she self-published in June. Themes of generational trauma and racism appear throughout — experiences that are personal to her as a racial minority in Montana.
Yet many of her poems return to themes of magic, a love of land and connection to place, and the redemptive mantra, “I’m still here.”
Finley graduated from high school in Arlee and went to college in New Mexico. There, she realized how much her thoughts had been shaped by where she grew up, where the sound of birds and streams always filled the silence, and mountains blocked the horizon.
“New Mexico is totally flat,” she said. “You can see the curve of the Earth in the horizon. I felt out of place in New Mexico, but it shaped who I am as a writer. It gave me geographical space.”
That space allowed her to think more freely, away from the expectations people had of her back home. When she told her English teacher in high school that she wanted to be a writer, he told her writing wasn’t part of her culture. It was useful for her to get away from that in New Mexico, she said, where professors encouraged her to continue pursuing poetry.
Finley calls herself “a poet who does other things.” In addition to writing, she teaches yoga, formerly worked as a journalist, and spent a year managing a suicide prevention program, where she became intimately acquainted with the impact trauma and loneliness have on people. Human connection is the best antidote to trauma, she said.
“The greatest reward is when my work does connect to people. Because I believe loneliness is an epidemic,” Finley said. “If my writing makes someone feel less alone, then I’ve done my job as a writer.”
Finley finished by reciting from memory part of a poem she wrote last week.
My brown hands could build an ugly coffin
with every sad thing that has ever happened to me.
I could bury my face and my voice in complete darkness.
But why not walk on the land and taste good kisses instead?
Finley’s book “My Hands Have Vertigo” is available for purchase at Fact and Fiction or on Amazon.