I played baseball a couple of times with Ken Belford. It was in the 1980s, in a league where our team of writers, which had George Bowering, Mike Barnholden, Norm Sibum, and bookseller Jim Allen, played against other print-related teams—Duthie Books had a team, there was a team of newspaper guys run by Vancouver Sun journalist John Mackey, another of mostly magazine writers and a team of younger poets from the Kootenay School of Writing, poststructuralists mainly, and though they were opaque or plain old incomprehensible on the page, they were perfectly normal and likeable on a baseball field. Whenever writers who weren’t pencil-necks were in Vancouver, we invited them to play for us: Hanford Woods played with us a couple of times, Wayne Grady played for us, Barry McKinnon and Belford came down from Prince George and played. I think we once invited W.P. Kinsella to play for us, and were disappointed to discover he wasn’t a ballplayer.
Belford could play, because, well, Belford was in that stage of his life where he could do almost anything: write, think, play baseball, jump over a building in a single bound. In the middle of one of the games he played with us, he did something that I’ll never forget. The game we were playing was at a gravel field we called Fenway Park because it had a short left field fence. It was a schoolyard in East Vancouver, 15th Avenue and Windsor St, I think. Somewhere in the middle of the game, I got on base, and Belford, who was hitting behind me, hit a double that put me on third. I probably should have scored on his double, but of the things I was famous for as a ballplayer, speed afoot or baserunning skills weren’t on the list: I was more likely to trip over second base than to hit a triple without incident.
So there we were, me on third and Belford on second, with Norm Sibum at the plate.
Norm lofted a fly into deep left, which really wasn’t all that deep to begin with, and I tagged up in case someone got to it. Sure enough, their left fielder did, and I ambled toward home, or maybe I shambled toward home, in no great hurry because I knew the left fielder didn’t have much of an arm. I must have been no further than twenty feet toward home when a powerful force picked me up from behind, and literally propelled me to the plate, half throwing me and half carrying me. It was Belford, who had tagged up at second base with the plan of scoring on the tag-up from there, and he’d moved so swiftly he caught up to me and carried me across the plate as if I were a ten-year old little leaguer. I was a six foot one little leaguer, and I weighed 200 pounds.
I was more startled than hurt because Belford had somehow managed to pick me up without any impact, and he’d dropped me with enough precision that I landed atop the plate a split-second before he did, thump, thump. Oh, yeah, one more thing. Before we got more than a foot or two past the plate, Belford apologized for scaring me. Seeing if he could score on a tag-up from second was a challenge that interested him, he explained.
So what does this tell you about Ken Belford, who died on February 19th in Prince George, B.C. after a battle with cancer that lasted six years, and a struggle with poor health and physical injuries that lasted much longer? This: he was an amazing specimen of a male human being, swift, powerful, and inventive, and he had remarkably good manners.
If you’re reading this it’s safe to say that you ‘re probably aware that Belford was a uniquely-talented poet who wrote dozens of excellent poems and hundreds of unforgettable lines of poetry. There’s a lot of things I could say about Belford’s poetry, but I’ve already done that on this website, and I’m not going to take back either the superlatives or the criticisms because Belford is now dead. I want to talk about some other Belford stuff.
First of all, Belford was always the real deal, both as a poet and as a human being. He was the only B.C. poet who could talk and write about the natural world and/or the wilderness of Northern British Columbia without being a hoser-poseur. That’s because he lived in the wilderness, and he lived it. Other poets, me included, have visited the wilderness in greater or less degrees of velvet capery and correctness, and still more poets have gazed down on it from afar, and genuflected upon its cosmic meaning while contemplating its career utility. But Belford was different. He knew what it was like to be cold and wet and brushed by devil’s club in a way no one else has come close to. He was the least-exploitive human being of my acquaintance, ecologically, poetically, interpersonally.
Second, Ken Belford was a nice man, which is remarkable in itself because he lived with the kind of demons that can’t be therapized away. In the years that I was lucky enough to spend time with him, the 1970s and 1980s, those demons were close to the surface, and I was a witness on several occasions when they got loose, nearly always after he gotten a few drinks in him. I spent at least two night with him when the demons had him by the shorthairs and he was certifiably out of his tree. What I remember, though, isn’t violent barroom stunts, or the proximity to Armageddon he could deliver you to, but the intensity of his pain, and the resourcefulness with which he tried to understand and sublimate it. That, and his extraordinary politeness.
I’m not kidding. He could be ready to take on an entire bar, and would stop himself because he didn’t want to risk you getting harmed. In those days, people were loyal to Belford because, usually, they’d seen him earn it. Barry McKinnon, who’s written the most generous account of Belford’s career I’ve ever read of one poet writing about a contemporary, knew more of this side of Belford than I did, and he loved Belford like a brother, and his affection remained undimmed after Belford attacked him repeatedly and, I thought, unfairly.
Belford scared me when he was in the hands of his demons, but I learned to trust him even then. I came to understand that he was carrying a heavier load of guilt and self-condemnation than I could imagine, a load that I sensed, even back then, had something to do with women: the way they’re treated by men in general, not just by him. But there was something more obscure to it: his parents? Some childhood trauma? Hard to say, and he wasn’t the sort of person you could ask about such things. But there was some sort of private pain he was never free of, something he’d been a witness to, something he couldn’t live with, or didn’t want to. Who knows what it was? I do know he was helplessly attracted to powerful women, and, I think, easily manipulated by just about any woman, strong or not. I was always moved by how hard he tried to understand this part of himself, and on evidence, it’s clear he never gave up trying.
So what am I saying? First of all, Ken Belford was as angry a man as I ever met. I know that his understanding of the world made him angry, which is something all of us would (or ought to) feel if we were able to look at the natural world through eyes as expert as his became. His experience of interpersonal relationships also contributed to his anger, and I think I’ve admitted that I don’t know the exact sources of that private rage, maybe because no one, not even a poet as gifted as Belford, can articulate such things without destroying themselves and the poetry they write.
Second, Ken Belford was a gentle human being. For all his violence—and there was some, right to the end—he sublimated and held back more violence than the whole regiment of mackinaw-wearing rifle-toting enema-pumping hoser-poseurs and ideologically constipated eco-poet militants put together. You saw how extraordinary that part of him was when he smiled, which he didn’t do enough. When he did, though, and it was usually because he’d figured something of his private puzzle out, his grin was like the sun coming out, an act of the most particular and intense joy.
I didn’t see or talk to Belford in the last decade of his life. All I got were some threats about what he would do if I came to town, which I did several times, all without incident. He’d decided that his old friends and allies weren’t trustworthy—a term that he condemned quite a few people with during his last years. That caused those like me, who admired and liked him both as a person and a writer, discomfort and regret, and it caused people who loved him, like Barry McKinnon, intense pain. Most of those he pushed out of his life accepted it, but nearly all remained loyal to his past poetry and did their best to come to terms with his new work, which was often laced with ideologies that are always the enemies of poetry. It wasn’t difficult to do this because Belford remained a poet, and his utterly singular voice kept breaking through the ideological correctness.
Only time will tell what the true story is: whether Ken Belford got lost, or we lost Belford. I just wish it could have gone differently, nearly all of it.
April 3, 2020, 1622 words