Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ken Belford & Alison Calder

seens is a chapbook from ken belford, a poet I met last year at UBC but had heard about him over the years. We share a love of British Columbia, and not just the obvious spots, but places like the Nass Valley, the Skeena, Hazelton and so on. I'm heading north for the first two weeks of July and very much looking forward to poking around in the mountains, not quite looking for the ghost bear, Kermode, but walking in the dense coastal rain forests.

I've had several conversations recently about the over-production of art, or more pointedly, poetry. For me, being inundated with poetry is almost counter-productive. At what point do the voices blend together into a cacophony of noise? I'm not suggesting that we favor the silent anxiety stricken poetic voice over the public vocal voice, but oh, I long for a more thoughtful poetry, a poetry that requires time and rereading, that rewards one's efforts, that engages and grows as the reader's mood and experience grow...a poetic that has been simmering, that has much to say and really, thought of a thousand ways of doing so before that first utterance...

I say this because discovering ken belford's
seens was refreshing in its slightness. It's a project concerned with what is overheard, or in the poet's word his "discomfort with previously heard conversations and viewed texts having to do with a 'sense of place'," and it's far from the noise of the poetry world.
For 30 summers in a row I flew north
to the Blackwater where the weather
Warms to mild and sand is dirty.
It doesn't matter where it is,
in Gitxsan it's called paradise.
Place means something to Wiminosik,
But it doesn't to the drifters.
It doesn't matter where they go.
The beach is not a place and
They'd sooner travel to another
State of mind than a different spot...
and later
Landscape is about something
But it is not of something I know.
Maybe the north is, or remains a landscape out of reach, out of touch, unimaginable. But it's never far from the hand reaching for the gas pump is it? Or the rare quality of fly-in fishing, the way that the Hemingways dream of felling gazelles... "Travel books destroy rivers," the poet tells us:
Cheap travel means no more undisturbed places
so I left it for the travelers.
I imagine the end of supply.
I didn't make a good guide
Because I didn't fit the purpose
And smashed my good future.
What are we looking at? What are we seeing? There are those who believe that restoring sight might be the potential of poetry, of art. When we look at the land? This isn't a poet who is answering these questions, but asking them.
I wish it wasn't true but I think
People are looking for poems that go away.
That go away? Interesting. Is this the last gasp of lyric earnestness? Or, not seeing, or seeing "seeing as consumption" or what I have taken to call "extinction porn," or the incessant photographing, tracking and webcamming of animals that we are literally chasing off the planet. Is that a kind of "going away"? The sequence, or this portion of it because it seems to be an ongoing project, ends:
...I won't be following the sightseer
On a round trip, or the eco-tourist who wants
To see it all. Everyone's wanting to go
Somewhere, but I'll be staying home.
Another book that slipped across my desk recently. A book with a completely different sensibility, and one that I have opened and closed, opened and closed, being both taken with it and frustrated by it. And now Alison Calder's Wolf Tree, (Coteau 2007) has won the Manitoba Book Prize. This is a quiet book, and one concerned with making full, believable representations of nature, of the quotidian, within a tradition of Canadian poetry that places itself as a kind of ear to the senses (Tim Lilburn, Karen Solie, Don McKay, many Brick poets...). Here's a small poem from the book that seemed to encapsulate it:

What comes of Beauty

What comes of beauty:
the trout lurching in the boat-bottom
and night falling onto the boards

moving and lightless:
the fish, the fisher,
the net and the scales

Not exactly surprising in its associations, but alliterative and imagistic, an ode to small. Other poems such as "Sexing the Prairie," are fun: "That railway? Don't call it 'laying track' for nothing." But poems such as "We Hate The Animals," a musing on our relationship to the animals among us, don't quite get at anything new about our relationship to those animals. And I'm not sure, just absolutely not sure, that we can get at anything new without being more mindful of the language we are using. And not mindful only in the way of sound, but in the way of our laying it down. Thinking of Celan, of course, and closer to home in time and geography, someone like Dennis Lee in both Un and Yes/No.

But Calder gets closer than many of the books I've worked through in the past year to something fresh. The poem "Imagine a Picture," for example, which begins:

Imagine a picture of your sister or your daughter
and stretch it out. Do not stop pulling.
Stretch until the bones jut, until the body
reveals the frame. Stretch until all you see...

Yes, yes, all you see? I'm waiting for a surprise here, a leap of image, of linguistic energy, but what I get is "are bones and eyes." This is a solid book but by skilled poet. But I wonder what the poet would do with a little pull, a little stretching out of her own imagination. A little gap between her own assumptions. What could you see if you stretched and stretched and stretched and stretched? What might the scrim of a body resemble? And why not turn your attention to language, coming behind you like a Grizzly, hungry, feeling the range of her land shrinking, saying, you have one second to astonish, or startle, vanish, transmogrify, even explode for me. One second.

Now still thinking out lout about the avant-lyric which must be lyric untethered, not relying on metaphor, making another kind of sense, and aware of the new sentence, of lyric modulations, of parataxis, collage...all the technologies of the past few decades. A lyric that is aware of world and body in ways that far surpass the kind of naive assumptions that privilege such limited notions of imagination.

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