The author of this extraordinary little book is of Anishinaabe descent and speaks and writes in Anishinaabemowin as well as English. The Anishinaabe include the Odawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe people, and are today centered mostly in the Great Lakes region of the United States. There are also communities throughout several Canadian provinces. This poet lives in Wisconsin and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Each poem, Margaret Noodin tells us, was written first in Anishinaabemowin, then translated by her into English. Each poem appears in both languages, on facing pages, in What the Chickadee Knows. Noodin provides the reader with guidelines for sounding out the Anishinaabemowin words that are frequently “bursting with vowels.” But even if we read the English only, there are many moments of beauty and insight to encounter.

A preface in English explains her writing process, as well as a way for us to receive these poems:

“Whether we hear giji-giji-gaane-shii-shii or chick-a-dee-dee-dee depends on how we have been taught to listen. Our world is shaped by the sounds around us and the filter we use to turn thoughts into words.” What the Chickadee Knows encourages us to reconsider both what we hear and what we have learned not to hear.

But these are not only poems about sounds, but also about the opposite of sound: silence. In the first section titled “What We Notice,” this one resonated with us:

“Silent Snowfall

“While silently the snow falls
souls are washed new
arriving along the shore
where we pause to consider
the way each dawnlight opens our eyes again.”

Then, this poem offers a contrast between sounds and silence:

“Fierce Love

“The midnight goose goes away in fear
flying across a sea of clouds
thinking in a good language of
… guns
… sweet wild rice
… and secrets
then arrives singing into the silence
of the strength that comes after being afraid
diving into the river to sift again.”

Themes in many of the poems will be familiar to readers who are familiar with spiritual teachings in other Native writings:

“A Message to You

“I know there are different worlds
because our ancestors sent them messages
because lost lovers now live in them
because you just said that right now.
Are you the carved shoreline
and I the sweet water sea
or am I the shifting wind
you cannot perceive?”

In the excerpt accompanying this review you will find one longer poem, about the soul, presented in both Anishinaabemowin and English.