'Voices of continuance'

Words, speech, and memory in Jeannette Armstrong’s 'Breath Tracks' (1991)

Jeanette Armstrong’s poem collection Breath Tracks (1991) sews the sinew and muscle of the writing hand to the lips and lungs of the speaking mouth. The title of the book gestures toward the entanglement of writing and speaking in the body: tracks, the trace of language upon the page that is left by movements of the hand, and breath, that which comes before, during, and after the act of vocalization — a trace of the body in itself. In its positioning of these enmeshed mechanisms, Breath Tracks is a book about the mouth on the page or, to borrow the words that Armstrong imparts to Kim Anderson, these poems articulate “how sound and body gesture to create an art form.”[1]  

Born on the Penticton reserve of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, Armstrong, who is Syilx Okanagan, has dedicated much of her literary and activist labour to advocate for the rights of Indigenous peoples. In consonance with these aspects of Armstrong’s work, Breath Tracks directly engages the relationship between language, speech, history, and colonization:

Words are memory

a window in the present

a coming to terms with meaning

history made into now

a surge in reclaiming

the enormity of the past[2]


Language carries with it deep resonances from the past that play out in the present. From the quotation above — taken from Armstrong’s poem “Words” — I am reminded of a similar comment made by poet Joan Retallack in The Poethical Wager (2003) wherein she, too, cites the presentness of history: “The contemporary doesn’t leave history behind; it further complicates it.”[3] Indeed, it seems that both poets deeply feel the burden of the past in the immediate moment, yet for Armstrong this weight comes with a particular set of conditions stemming from Canada’s ongoing history of colonial violence. In “Threads of Old Memory,” Armstrong articulates the stakes of language and speaking within this very context: 

Speaking to newcomers in their language is dangerous

for when I speak

history is a dreamer

empowering thought

from which I awaken the imaginings of the past

bringing the sweep and surge of meaning

coming from a place

rooted in the memory of loss[4]


Speaking in the language of “newcomers,” presumably the English of white anglophone settlers, poses a threat. It is the speech of a different place, history, and rhythm. It is unlike her speech, which is “a song called up through the ages,” announced by the body.[5] In this way, I am struck by the power speech holds for Armstrong. By using the language of the settler and not her native tongue, the speaker risks losing a long, embedded history that is called forth by the carefully chosen words of her speaking mouth. In this way, these poems from Breath Tracks position speech as a deep and powerful entanglement with the past and present.

1. Kim Anderson, “Reclaiming Native Space in Literature / Breaking New Ground: An Interview with Jeannette Armstrong, ”West Coast Line 31, no. 2 (1997): 55.

2. Jeannette Armstrong, Breath Tracks (Stratford, ON/Vancouver, BC: Williams-Wallace/Theytus Books, 1991), 17.

3. Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 11. 

4. Armstrong, 58. 

5. Armstrong, 60.