Saturday, November 28, 2009

"The colour of a relational utterance": Fred Wah and _The False Laws of Narrative_

[Legos not included with the book; they merely hold the cover down]

It's a poetry reader's cliche, no doubt, but books do often come along just at the right time for their readers. Nicolas Bourriaud's book, The Radicant, found me in Berkeley over a month ago; this week, Louis Cabri's fine work of editing Fred Wah's poetry arrived in the mail from Wilfrid Laurier University Press in Ontario. The book is deliberately teacherly. As the General Editor of the series writes, "Our idea is to ask a critic (sometimes herself a poet) to select thirty-five poems from across a poet's career; write an engaging, accessible introduction; and have the poet write an afterword" (vii). Hence the reader, whether college student, general reader, or academic, approaches the poetry with her explicatory seatbelt firmly fastened.

Louis Cabri offers a marvelous map of Wah's concerns, which include form (questions of lyric and collage); Chinese Canadian history; local language and writing; interactions between the non-aboriginal poet and aboriginal texts; the influences of William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson; "improvisation" and "ratiocination" as modes of composition; the relationship of theory to poem (thoem); and, finally, the significance of sound to Wah's poetry. Cabri ties together many of these concerns when he writes that "The riprap of Wah's poetry learns from the grand collage epic, but takes off with the proprioceptive lyric. His riprap offers the juxtapositional openness and loose-endedness of collage, without collage's grand-historical, presumptive scale. Wah's riprap offers lyricism--without lyricism's I-centric, i-dentical iteration of poetic voice" (xiii). [Riprap is loose stone.]

["We are different," p. 25]

A poetry of loose stones permits the poet an honesty that the grand lyric or epic would not. Thus Wah's use of aboriginal rock art, from which he writes improvisations (not translations), is neither reverential nor appropriative. And Wah's extended piece about Tiananmen Square opens into a personal meditation on his father. It is this last piece that most captured my attention, namely "Dead in My Tracks: Wildcat Creek Utaniki," written during the summer of 1989. The piece is partly prose journal, partly poem, a meditation on self, on family, on the place where the poet is camping, and on global histories. The mix hits us early:

While we set up camp during the afternoon I'm in a global mode, you know, the simultaneity of the world going on right now. Paris. Kyoto. Beijing. The pavement of Tiananmen Square, the hotlines sniffing out the dissidents, CBC bulletin even email media drama of the last two months still in the air, even up here, radioless, only antennaed in my bones (our name is bones, and your name is my name). (54)

["Dead in My Tracks," beginning]

The poet pivots back: "from the lake to the treeline / all crumbly under foot at the edges / cruddy summer snow melt / soft wet twig and bough-sprung alpine fir" (54) and then back to world: "borders such thin thoughts (apples of our eyes) / selvage yesterday's Tiananmen" (55). See the composition by field above for a better sense of what the poem looks like.

The river and the "television's human river" collide, and the very rock becomes subject to its object: "shale shard weep shard shale weep shale weep shard shale weep" (57). The jet streams overhead come to the poet from Beijing, stitchings in his pixelated tapestry. This movement back and forth begins to seem ceaseless, although the poem is relatively compact. The poem ends where the stones and the soldiers in Beijing become one "thano-stone" (61), a relation that is still not of oneness but of two thoughts compressed. The collage of information, lyric, and observation, then, cannot join together without temporal and geographical seams left to show. Nor can the poem do anything but end; there are no conclusions to be drawn, except that we have been brought to a point where the wilderness cannot free us from global urban spaces of conflict.

The book itself ends with "Ripraps (Louis Cabri) and Afterwords (Fred Wah)." There's nothing new here, perhaps, except insofar as the collage moves from the poet's voice outward, permitting access to the critic's voice. To this reader, Cabri's most astute commentary comes in the third Riprap, on meaning, where he notes a difference between Gary Snyder's use of Chinese sources and Wah's: "By contrast, Mountain enacts mountainness, and difference. Mountain has little to do with Snyder's sinophilic identifications and thematic treatments. Merely to put them in relation like this is to render them falsely equivalent projects. Mountain is not a project engaged with the ancient Chinese poetic tradition--as was the case for many progressive poets since the end of the Second World War and for many eurocentric modernists before them" (68). Ah, but the surprise here is that Wah responds by acknowledging the importance of Pound and the ideogram to his own method. "'Movement, at any cost,'" Olson had reminded us, as Wah re-reminds us. Like Wayne Kaumalii Westlake in Hawai`i, Fred Wah is a modernist with a difference; one hopes that they (and significant others) point us toward a future poetics of negotiated, rather than enforced, differences.

1 comment:

Splabman said...

What an intelligent review of an under-appreciated poet. Kudos, Susan. Fred Wah is much deserving of wider recognition.