by Phoebe Wang
The Wind River Variations
P.O. Box 2278
Fernie, B.C. V0B 1M0
2012, 96 pp., $22.95, 978.0.88982.269.6
278 East 1st Avenue
Vancouver, B.C. V5T 1A6
2011, 128 pp., $17.95, 978.0.88922.660.9
A Grain of Rice
P.O. Box 2278
Fernie, B.C. V0B 1M0
2012, 92 pp., $17.95, 978.0.88982.286.3
To the west the cold Pacific, with its traffic of container ships moving through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. To the south, the 49th parallel and cross-border shopping malls. Rockies hem in the warm Fraser and Okanagan valleys to the east. To the north, the highway communities and the long fingers of the Yukon River watershed. Despite the drama of their borders, British Columbia and the Yukon are difficult to contain. They are canyon and lake, island and Sunshine Coast, port city and Hollywood North, unceded First Nations territory and resort town. These grand settings are bound up in a trenchant history, overlaid with ongoing disputes and competing interests. I spent several years out west, hurtling down the hills of East Van on my mountain bike, and trying to reconcile the landscape’s incompatible elements.
Brian Brett, Evelyn Lau, and Garry Thomas Morse attempt something other than reconciliation in their most recent books of poetry. Having lived nearly all of their lives in B.C., these poets depict the west as an unresolved place, haunted by angry spirits and threatened by exploitation. In Discovery Passages, Morse traces the fallout of Captain George Vancouver’s original sailing route on his family and ancestral tribe. He inherits Daphne Marlatt’s and George Bowering’s de-centred relationship with language, using fragmented voices to convey the violence of language and potlatch bans. Brett’s The Wind River Variations, with photographs by Fritz Mueller, is based on expeditions with Native elders to the Three Rivers of the Yukon’s Peel watershed. Outspoken and self-questioning, the book is part environmentalist treatise, part travelogue, and part meditation. A Grain of Rice, Lau’s sixth book, is an unflinching record of the complicit middle-aged self, written with her trademark starkness. Her dire poems listen in on the lives of adjacent apartment dwellers and trace the grievances that are impossible to leave behind. “There’s the sense we’ve been around too long,/ spoiled things… The sky would not miss us if we were gone,” writes Lau in “Midlife.” Her feeling is echoed in Brett’s and Morse’s poems as well.
These poets do not share literary predecessors or touchstones, and their formal stylings and treatment of syntax are nearly incomparable. Yet all three poets are conscious of the tension between the west as a land of opportunity and the ransacking of its natural resources. They are fascinated by nomadic inquiries and the impulse to travel, but also ask what kinds of permission and invitation are granted to the explorer. Their respective versions of the west create a composite image of the borders between individual lives and choices.
I still recall a graduate school classmate’s dismissal of Discovery Passages as slapdash and deliberately cryptic. Although he grudgingly admitted a lack of contextual understanding of Morse’s subject matter, it was his anger, verging on fury, that I remember most. For myself, it took a few years to read the Governor General’s Award-nominated book, to face the “apparitions & disappearances” I dreaded I’d find in the text. In “Conversations with Remarkable Elders,” Morse refers to how the treatment of First Nations peoples has become overfamiliar, evoking weariness and malaise: “Dodie doesn’t know her own/ people, so to speak, high res./ schools & so on & so forth …” If the poems provoke bafflement and anger in the reader, it may be a deliberate tactic, a reflection of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe’s stunned bewilderment at the policies of Indian Agent William Halliday, Superindependent General Duncan, and the Canadian government. The banning of the potlatch, the theft and sale of ceremonial paraphernalia to U.S. museums, and the blatant discrimination of the Indian Act may not be familiar subjects to non-B.C. residents and readers, and in a parallel way, the reader has a share in this sense of confusion.
Discovery Passages doesn’t leave you alone. At over 100 pages, it’s a book that is overwhelming with its flurry of intertexts. Photographs of Franz Boas and of Billy Assu, Quadra Island stone petroglyphs, excerpts of letters between Halliday, Scott, Sergeant D. Alderman and H.S. Clements, epigraphs from John A. Macdonald, Armand Garrett Ruffo, and George Bowering impel the reader to search outside the borders of the texts for references, links, and background information. Morse is an active user of social media for the dissemination of collaborative poetic projects, and this approach to hypertextuality sways the content of Discovery Passages. For Morse, the facts are surrounded by a cloud of hearsay, broken agreements, and lost documents. The poems have a paraphernalia of their own.
Although I had taken Lorraine Weir’s seminar on First Nations literature as an undergraduate at UBC, I still found a bit of background reading on Morse’s intentions was valuable, as the family connections aren’t overtly alluded to in the text. Weir’s review at Canadian Literature traces the book’s literary lineage, and names Morse as an inheritor of:
Modernism’s reinscription of the European classical epic … Morse brings Joyce and Olson, Sappho and Heraclitus, Homer and Dante, but also Ginsberg and Marlatt and Bowering and Blaser (among many others) to this haunted journey to his mother’s ancestral territory. What are the protocols of entry in such circumstances?
A descendent of the ancestral Kwakwa’wakw First Nation, Morse recounts bits of dialogue and tall tales that were passed down through the generations, gathered from his great-grandfather, Chief Billy Assu,. The scatter-shot stanzas and whimsical punctuation reflect Morse’s resistance to plotting a narrative, particularly when these snippets of stories don’t necessarily have a coherent beginning and end. Incredibly painful experiences bubble up to the surface, and the staggered and fragmented lines resemble that slow surfacing of memory.
Yet Morse threads humour throughout poems such as “The Indian Picture Show,” in which he gives this disclaimer:
some aspects of In the Land of Headhunters do not accurately depict the essence of Kwakwa’wakw life or culture including the long-abandoned practices of sorcery, finagling human remains, and the whole head hunting thing. In some cases, artifacts situation and setting may be from neighboring tribes. Look for the symbol of authenticity. In some cases several Jeep Grand Cherokees were removed from the original film footage.
Morse does not see himself as an author as much as he does a kind of medium, which he explains further in an interview with Kevin Spenst. He channels the misunderstandings, the halting attempts to speak the colonizer’s language, and the stilted bureaucratic responses. In a northern trip he took through the B.C. islands, “a great deal of information in their own voices and images presented themselves … This book, rooted in history and place, for the most part, wrote itself.” The poems travel over the border between the living and the dead through their evocation of voices and forgotten crimes. Discovery Passages is an exorcism through the creative act, an attempt to heal his community through the recalling of myth. Unfortunately, none of us can follow Morse’s myriad speakers into that place of healing. Morse acts as a guide, at least
until the day/ beyond/ tepid storytelling/ &/ trembling/voices
when our relations
will no longer
in our writings
I mean, for
things we do not
Perhaps in Discovery Passages, the young healer is learning the chants that act as medicine, that can rid the community of lingering spirits. Morse relentlessly searches for the magic trick, the combination of words and significant phrases that will fill in the blanks.
“The dingle dangle of history” and the “ghosts of the north” also preoccupy Brian Brett’s poems. Conscious of the romanticism of cowboy myths and northern expeditions, Brett refrains from making assumptions about his travels with Gwich’in elders to the junctions of the Wind Rivers. Brett is the kind of explorer who waits to be invited. In his opening poem, he expresses a sense of wonder and gratitude that uplifts the entire book: “I’ve heard this is not unusual, this invitation,/ I’ve read about it somewhere./ It’s been done before, the invitation, this voyage.” Before the invitation, the speaker sees himself as alone in a small room, “busy in my sad way,/ repeating the same old story, following legends,/ the technicolour dream of opportunities/ every time you dare to dream aloud.” He is not only being invited on a journey, but invited to dream about the landscape: “the invitation is real, and the voyage like a dream/ into this lonely river, inviting us to that river, along with/ their Nacho N’yak Dun friends.” Brett is committed to “accepting every invitation,” especially ones that bring him closer to an understanding of the natural world.
The Wind River Variations is full of questions about what it means to follow and to begin a journey. In titles such as “Airplane to the North,” “Ballad of the Lost Traveler,” “Tracking Myself,” and “Tribal Knowledge,” the speaker continually points out his own disorientation from what he knows, his own failings to pay attention and the ludicrous positions in which this places him.
It’s not only because the bluffs, ponds, river rapids and tundra are without boundaries, but also because the speaker lacks the skillset and referential experiences that can make him feel more familiar. When does a journey begin? When does it end in our minds?
These poems might have probed more extensively into the specific history of exploration and settlement in the Yukon. For instance, Brett alludes to Jack London’s “mythical beasts,” Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men, werewolf stories, and Farley Mowat, and also includes epigraphs by Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. But he does not overtly critique how male, European representations of the “Wild West” have contributed to the generic and clichéd figures of the explorer who escapes civilization to spark his own enlightenment. As a result, it’s unclear whether or not Brett aligns his writing with Thoreau’s tradition of nature writing and the personal odyssey. Although the speaker states that “This is the land of the 4-stroke outboard and the satellite./ The hills of ancient ones living alongside new history,” these statements are tame and vague. I can only assume that Brett wishes not to reinscribe a human history, but instead to listen to the sounds of the waves, wind, wolves, and what they might have to tell him.
Many poems set up the boundary between technology and the natural world too facilely, such as in “Joe Bishop’s Wrist Watch,” in which Joe’s barometer-watch is “full of promise and threat and adventure/ and a technology even he can’t understand,” though the conclusion is sweet and child-like: “Every weather is good weather.” Or in “The Number of Stars:”
You forget them, you forget it,
what some might call the natural world.
Because each night has gone neon,
an incandescent world, a florescent world.
Every horizon glows artificial.
The speaker exults: “the stars! Infinite stars./ There. You have seen them. The last, real stars.” While the reader can relate to the claustrophobia of the city, where “the parking lot is all there is,” the poem sets up a simplistic dichotomy between the “Seven-Eleven … our Walmart epiphanies” and the “lonely tundra night.” In fact, these northern expeditions rely on modern conveniences and technologies such as GPS and Gore-Tex as much as they require a sense of adventure and observation. The tensions and overlaps between the “florescent world” and nature could have been fleshed out with more irony.
The book’s prose pieces bring out the irony of the journey in much more complex and humorous ways. The Wind River Variations is a series of snapshots, stray observations and epiphanies. They don’t need to be strung together or to connect events. Yet neither the order of the poems nor their loose, arbitrary forms underscore what we should take away or what we should learn from them. Perhaps if they had, it would not be necessary for Brett to include the “Postscript: What We Learn.”
The prose pieces do strengthen the book, but only because they better reveal the poet’s hard-won realizations. Although he had spent his twenties hiking and backpacking along the west coast, thinking that he “knew wilderness,” he soon admits, “it was only as I watched it disappear that I realized I never understood where I had been. Despite the rugged mountain journeys of my youth I had always been a tourist, even when I spent months in isolated cabins.” Still, Brett seems nostalgic for “the days of my mackinaw, blue jeans, tarp, wood-framed pack, cast iron frying pan, and giant goose-down bag,” especially when he must now completely re-outfit himself in “gore-tex and super-wicking fibre.” He is “quietly embarrassed” by his “spiffy hi-tech gear” when meeting one of their guides, Jimmy Johnny, and this prose piece complicates his own awe, envy, memory, and wonder, leading to the moment “when you know you are standing next to someone ground in his world. This is why I realized how much I was a guest in Jimmy Johnny’s home, and for him the real wilderness was ‘out there’—back in the city.” In another piece, “White Wolves,” Brett writes painfully of when he misreads the wolf cubs’ intention, deploying his storytelling skills to highlight his own guilt and insecurity.
These poems succeed in emphasizing our shortfalls in knowledge. They attempt to bridge two worlds, and Brett longs to “embrace my travelling tribe from the urban world, these two tribes, and their landscape.” It may be the only way to “match our glowing dream/ fantasy of an ecologically-balanced past in this watershed.”
Loss, complicity, and lives that spill into each other in unwanted ways are also present in Lau’s A Grain of Rice. We have come to expect certain things from the Poet Laureate of Vancouver: her renegade quality, her unflinching honesty. She does not spare herself, and the poems are frequently steeped in self-castigation. This unsparing quality is tied to Lau’s visceral language and her unwillingness to gloss over the sweat and smell of the middle age and the indulgences of the body. This immediacy ties together the four sections of the book, which deal with the death of John Updike, the changing skyline of Vancouver and the inexplicable actions of its inhabitants, trips to Honolulu and Maui, and the phobias of modern living.
Lau wants to deal with realities strictly, yet ghostly shapes and echoes haunt her poems as they do Morse’s. Where Morse lambasts the “myth of being clean” and of having a clean, whitewashed history, and where Brett is questioning how a journey can change our lives, Lau focuses upon nameless strangers and their perilous dreams. They jostle up against each other, wait at border crossings and try to surface in the middle of English Bay while “swimming off one of the rusty freighters./ striking out for this golden shore.” Lau begins A Grain of Rice wondering about those who never make it to the utopia of the new world:
what a paradise this must have seemed to him,
our soft sloping mountains and clean wide sidewalks,
a dream of heaven he reached for and reached for
until the freezing waters swept his body ashore.
Where others might stew in complaint, Lau milks her sense of dissatisfaction into a scathing poetry of social critique. Each person must make many small choices about where to look, what to buy, what to hear, and then live with the consequences. The weight of tiny accumulations is enough to stop the heart.
The opening poems imply that those in Vancouver don’t realize their good fortune. “Snow Globe City” is a title that alludes to the closed, bubble-like affluence of its homeowners and condo-dwellers. Most people lie still and complacent under their duvets, but there’s a fire in the speaker’s brain all night, a “conflagration” when she thinks “Five blocks away/ a homeless woman burns in her cart,/ the stingy heat of a candle lighting up/ her quilts and cardboard, her long red hair.” Snow is rare in Vancouver, and seems to further stifle the unpleasant poverty from the glass condos: “you love how it muffles everything, /stifles the sounds of the city, the gunshots/ going off downtown, the screams.”
Lau’s speaker is unable to stop hearing the noises of the city, the “fragments of fury, shouts through slammed doors,/ footfalls pounding down like blows” or “My upstairs neighbour’s 4 am rants:/ F you, f you, f you,/ chanted like a holy mantra.” She’s kept awake by the “mysterious thumps and thuds,” and earplugs are the only way she can hear her own thoughts and the “soft animal snoring of [her] heart.” No matter what she does, though, Lau will always be aware that “We apartment-dwellers think we live/ in concrete cells, but our lives leak into our neighbours’,” and consequently, the lack of easy divisions between people’s interests means that we cannot look away from the welfare of others.
At the night market, a “woman with filthy hair … stares at the vats of curried fish balls/ and braised tripe,” the speaker perceiving “her face squeezed by hunger.” Like the families and diners around her, “I could buy her/ a meal and not miss it,” but instead, she stuffs “shrimp gyoza,/ squid tentacles, kimchi pancakes/ into my mouth as if into someone starving,/ someone I am trying to save.” Looking away only compounds the speaker’s collusion with a consumerist culture.
Throughout the poems, Lau juxtaposes contrasting lives not to collapse difference, but to present shared experiences. The separation between material circumstances and self-actualization is a shoreline, one washing over the other. When a blue heron alights next to her, they are “two creatures occupying the same stretch/ of seawall, the same breath of existence.” During the 2010 Olympic hockey win, downtown explodes with horns and screams, and “figures stream out of buildings/ carrying pots and pans/ like refugees fleeing on foot.” Lau is using the imagery of exile and displacement to contrast the strange priorities of the Vancouverites’ obsession with sport and competition: “World peace would not cause such jubilation.” Meanwhile, the speaker is reading a collection of stories by Chinese women writers: “Ding Ling’s eight years in prison,/ twelve years of hard labour in the countryside.” Writing a poem for fellow writer Fiona Lam’s mother, she again wonders about a “parallel life.”
Lau’s speaker is constantly dogged by other presences, other lives. Her ghosts are not necessarily those who have passed away, but voices populating her mind:
Where have the people
who populated my young life gone?
Boxes in the ground, handfuls
of ash in the wind. Give me an incantation
to shake their spirits, a magic word
or crystal spell.
Lau’s ghosts are personal, and even while travelling, she cannot shut out the “ghost of smoke in the hallways” or stop attending to “a dubious history.” It’s an unsettling way to live, and the reader needs a strong stomach for these unrelenting poems, filled with nausea, fears, recriminations, waiting rooms, and tumours. In many ways, these are diary entries, and for some, Lau may overshare. The lines are thick with physicality and the imagery of pathology. Others may find it refreshing these poems don’t blink or hedge from grief and loss.
The west coast is a place overlaid with names, and Captain George Vancouver, who charted much of the Pacific Northwestern coast, named many of the features after friends who had never set foot in North America. Point Grey, a tip of land adjacent to the University of British Columbia, edged by a series of beaches, was named for Captain George Grey, also of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. The city of Vancouver was first known as Gastown, and the old Chinese name for Vancouver is “Salt Water Float.” It sits on both Musqueum and Coast Salish hunting territories. The multiple names seem to float, untethered to each other, like the multiple Vancouvers, each with different boundaries, each occupying separate strata. In the pubs along Hastings, people go to be forgotten. Remnants of the old Japanese community linger on Powell Street, and the construction of the Georgia Viaduct led to the demolition of the city’s black communities.
Lau’s question is one that could also have been asked by Brett or by Morse: “Who are the people who live on this coast/ yet are nowhere to be seen at dusk/ or dawn, faces turned to the watery light?” Paradoxically, it’s in recognizing what and who has been lost that these three poets can heal, and as Lau writes, “come to the place of not knowing.” All three admit what they cannot know and cannot speak, as Morse does in his poem “500 Lines,” in which “I will not speak Kwak’wala” has become his community’s prophecy; and yet through its chant, Morse is able to sing anew. As Brett muses: “There must be a language somewhere,/ that takes us to the language of the free.” Language is the means by which these poets can bring us to the borders of what is known and not known. If only they can hit on the right “magic word,” it seems, then they might lay to rest old ghosts and ancestors and map a different legacy.
Phoebe Wang is a Toronto-based writer and reviewer whose work has appeared in Arc, Canadian Literature, Descant, Grain, The Malahat Review, and Ricepaper Magazine. She is a graduate of the U of T MA in Creative Writing program, and has been twice longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize. A chapbook, Occasional Emergencies, was released in the fall of 2013 from Odourless Press. More of her work can be found at www.alittleprint.com. She is currently Outreach Coordinator for The Puritan.