Slick Reckoning, by Ken Belford, Vancouver, Talonbooks, 2017/ $16.95 pb. 90 pp.
Slick Reckoning is Ken Belford’s third book of poetry from Vancouver’s Talonbooks since 2010, and probably his best since he moved into Prince George, stopped being a masculine force of nature and starting hanging out with roly-poly professors who try to force postcolonialist vocabulary on the logging proletariat of Northern B.C., while searching for the correct post-Bolshevik political line to justify it.
The singular virtue of Belford and his earlier work was that he was a force of nature, and a genuine one: brilliantly original as a poet; hypermasculine as an investigative intelligence; socially unpredictable while he was drinking and pissed off but fundamentally sweet-tempered when he wasn’t; and arguably the only poet in Canada who wasn’t a hoser-poser when he wrote about the wilderness. Belford was truly and authentically out there in that northern wilderness, and the grizzlies in his poems were grizzlies he’d seen and heard, and sometimes watched die. He exuded authenticity, and a lot of people liked and respected him for it. I certainly did.
I therefore tried very hard to like Slick Reckoning. But it’s hard slogging. The delivery package of the book, like its title, is unexplained and more than slightly confusing. It’s rather like the male figure depicted on the cover, which has been elevated a metre or so into the air, and you find yourself wondering if he was transported there by spiritual energies, the power of lan(d)guage, or what looks suspiciously like at least three shotgun blasts. Any of those three explanations accurately explicate Belford’s poetic intentions at different stages of his career, and, I suspect, within this book.
And what, exactly, is a “Slick Reckoning”? Dead reckoning I understand: it’s navigation from a fixed point, and is dependent on the accuracy of one’s instrumentation and the diligence of its human users. It’s what I used to calculate plot lines and boundaries while I was in the Forest Service in the 1960s, but it has now been rendered obsolete by global positioning technologies. I’ve tended to see poetry as navigation by lightning, and have tried—and failed—to make my own poetry move that fast. Unfortunately, Belford never gets around to explaining what slick reckoning is supposed to do. The only time the term gets mentioned in the text is near the end of the book:
The religiosity of the ancients
is more about intimidation
than a slick reckoning
of inspirational telling
that is not out of passion
not out of honour
not out of alarm
but for all that
is connected with
the vocal cue of
the listeners and is a part
Of what? That was the end of the poem, and it just hangs, without a conclusion or even punctuation to guide us. That made me go back to the beginning of the passage: how can someone as well-read as Belford be generalizing “the ancients” in a theological world with Greeks, Jews, and a dozen strains of Buddhists in it?
The book’s jacket copy, written by Rob Budde in drooling postcolonialese, suggests that Belford dares to wonder about the “necessity of poetry”. Eh? That’s not daring. Its what every competent poet in the last century has wondered. As for “unraveling the nepotistic networks of the literature industry”, it seems to me that the “literature industry” Budde imagines is more like a small pond that market capitalism has mostly drained and is now preparing to landfill. A few frogs helping one another to climb onto the remaining lily pads don’t quite constitute “nepotistic networks”. The completely opaque author’s note at the end of the book that informs the reader that Belford rewrote the book five times (only five?) and that its content was altered by “a virulent but almost invisible form of cancer” isn’t much help, either, however excruciating the ordeal must have been to Belford.
The poems in Slick Reckoning are more self-declarative than his recent volumes, and it may be the case that his cancer precipitated the need to settle things. Like any self-declarative poetry—viz. Walt Whitman—it requires a certain permissiveness from the reader because self-declaration is easy to mistake for bombast: “Like most stars, my first poems/were forgettable,” etc..
In the first half of the book I went along with the self-declarations in good faith, refusing to be irritated by the idiosyncratic notation (and the shop-worn use of lower case first person singular, as if that solves the problem of ego by itself.) I also did my best to ignore the post-structuralist shorthand (lan(d)guage, etc.) and generally gave Belford the benefit of the doubt when I couldn’t find any way to understand a poem with the content it provided.
I did so because I could see that Belford was trying to build an epistemology and a vocabulary that questioned contemporary poetic technique, either of which could reposition him in a way that reflected his new understanding of the world but without betraying his understanding of poetry, which has always been acute and technically expert. Among other things, he refers, intriguingly, to things like “compound poets” and “semiconductor poets”. What could those be?
But as the poems came and went, I got the sense that Belford wasn’t talking to the “reader-of-good-faith” but rather to an authority that he somehow feared might disapprove of him, and particularly, might disapprove of his past. There was also a rising volume of ideological shrieking, and some incomprehensible references to “boy poetry gangs” that sounded like anti-homosexual slurs but probably referred to the poets around his former friend and poetic companion Barry McKinnon. But as Belford’s new universe laid floor onto ill-defined floor, I eventually lost track of how it all worked, (or was supposed to) and began to grow irritable at all the things this new universe loathed and found inferior or incorrect. Still, I let it go out of respect for a gifted poet who’s stentorian voice can still enact powerful melodies, as with,
Don’t swim with dolphins.
I don’t care if it’s fun. Don’t
Touch living fish. I don’t care
If it’s a spiritual experience
or for show, or for food.
Don’t keep cute students
within reach. Don’t keep
wild animals close.
Let them have their lives.
We should let them be.
I was also bothered by the pervasive anti-humanism that’s everywhere in Slick Reckoning, but recognize Belford’s nearly unique authority to declare it. He’s the guy who spent all those years in the bush, and that gave him an up-close look at the assholes who’ve whacked down our forests and destroyed the wilderness. Belford’s always been an angry man, and even if he now claims he isn’t, the best writing in this book comes from there.
I think that, at some point, either the cancer took over, or the painkillers did. Either way, the argument he wanted to make lifted from its moorings and the surreal and the apocalyptic paranoiac began to rule, and when that didn’t, he was shouting incoherently at his local enemies, who he seemed to believe are laughing at him. (Most of them are actually bending themselves into painful intellectual contortions trying to remember why they once respected him, and into physical contortions trying to avoid more street confrontations with him and his postcolonialist posse.)
In the last third of the book, I think Belford loses control of both the vocabulary he was building, and sometimes, of what he’s trying to say in the individual poems. I don’t know what happened. Again, maybe the cancer and the pain-killers took over. At times he seemed to be preoccupied by the idea of “safe housing”, (I wanted to write poems that were/a form of safe housing”) which is an admirable goal if you’re either a municipal building inspector or an espionage agent on the run in a hostile country, but not if you’re writing verse. Belford doesn’t clarify what he means by “safe housing”, why it’s important, or who it’s supposed to offer safety to. He seems increasingly—and for him, oddly—unclear about where he’s speaking metaphorically and where he’s speaking referentially.
He also appears to be increasingly obsessed with “danger”, but he doesn’t define what that is, either. At times he conflates the “danger” with language that may hurt the feelings of his new allies, and with the different uses poets might make of that “dangerous” language. It raises the question of whether or not Belford has forgotten that most men are assholes, and that no one, male, female or all the gradations between, gets through life without behaving like an asshole. This is not, as Belford appears to now see it, a theological or political matter. It’s simple common sense and our existential burden.
But then, just as my eyes are starting to roll back into my head in frustration with the lack of coherence, there’s a passage that is vintage Belford: illusive and yet perfectly constructed, hinting at the kind of laughter that evokes curiosity, not contempt or denunciation.
There is no path to poetry,
But the door opened &
Moses was burning brush
& someone asked what is that
still, small voice saying?
That’s the good, and there was enough of it to keep me reading. The bad is whenever he uses the lumpy rhetoric of postcolonialism, which he does with increasing frequency as the book moves along. The poetry vanishes, and you have sentences filled with, well, lumpy rhetoric that you can’t parse without a glossary of terms:
…the voices I hear sing
a collection of affirmations that
are not an account, but an answer
that is not an exaggeration of
differences ordered into a hierarchy
as it is with the deceptive
distinction & power diff-
erentials of the shameful
history of bullies who ignore
diversity within groups…
I mean, someone tell me how to imagine a physical image of “ignore/diversity within groups.” You can’t, because it’s all abstraction, an offense of unspecific action because you understand that it has real world victims that the words don’t give faces to. That isn’t poetry at all. It’s ideological mumbling. At least he didn’t use the word “hegemony”.
And so yes, the deeper Belford moves into postcolonial jargon, the further he gets from poetry. He begins to deploy terms like “white man” (a term as inaccurate and culturally demeaning as the now mercifully-obsolete term “Chinese waiter”—people who all looked the same to the oblivious a few generations ago—and it doesn’t help even a little when he varies this by using the term “Nedo”, which he explains is the Gitxsan slur for non-aboriginals. I suppose what he means by “white people” is colonialists, who all, apparently, look the same to the virtuously oppressed and the middle class academics who undertake to represent them.
I grew up in Prince George, and while there were plenty of oppressive jackasses around, I never once encountered a colonialist. Don’t they wear pith helmets and smoke big stogies, and die in their fifties of heart disease? And by the way, these academics Belford hangs out with represent their clients the way the Bolsheviks undertook, in the last century, to represent the Proletariat, that tiny minority of virtuous-to-Bolshevik-logic Soviet subjects who the Bolsheviks then went on to manipulate, oppress and murder as heartlessly as they did everyone else save those who precisely agreed with them and their rhetorical vocabulary and cowered accordingly.
Belford’s use of the term “white people” is disturbing because it’s the kind of violent generality that he claims his new politics prevent him from making. But it’s there, and a lot of other demeaning generalities abound. It turns a promising suite of poems into a crappy manifesto, if that’s what it’s supposed to be. As a manifesto it makes few tangible claims, seems to want nothing but a solitude in which to practice diaphanous virtues without being challenged. The evils it denounces, meanwhile, are opaque or too personal to spell out.
Is this book, as Belford somewhere suggests, his path out of the mountains? I don’t think so. If anything, he’s retreated deeper into his private mountains, and if where he is now is more a prickly but hermetically sealed ideology than a refuge from his enemies, well, I didn’t put him there, and neither did any of the people he believes are his enemies.
June 7, 2017, 2050 words