When Rita Wong’s Forage, published by Nightwood Editions, won the 2008 B.C. Books Award for poetry, I thought that was all right. I can’t remember which good books were ignored by the judging committee that year, but other than Wong’s book, the short list was pretty punk, I thought. The whole business about book prizes has had a deleterious effect on writing and especially on publishing, but still, when you see a short list you do pick a book to cheer for, if only to avoid the rewarding of a real dog. It doesn’t always work: remember the 1999 Giller Prize. Woof!
The cover of Forage is beautifully composed, and it depicts a fearful modern ugliness, a vast hill of discarded computer memory boards and other such refuse. The book takes on perhaps our most serious subject—the connections between political injustices and industrial destruction of the ecosphere. Here is most of the reason for my liking of the book: it is also interesting in formal design. Usually, and sadly, you can depend on the poet who takes on serious political and social issues to do so with literary forms that have been long approved by the bourgeoisie.
Really, the only thing I did not like about the form was the absence of upper case letters and graphemic punctuation. These are the two “advances” that busloads of tyro poets hope will signify their modernity. Nowadays they look like nothing more than they look like the screens on teenagers’ cell phones. Talk about the usual!
Wong works with the page as her unit here. Sometimes it will consist of a square of lower case prose. Sometimes the poem zips around the page like a puppy looking for a warm spot. Sometimes we seem to see what look like short lyrics. There are plenty of those postmodern parentheses beloved of graduate students in English: p a r e n t (h) e t (h) i c a l . There are a few photographs. And then there is the stuff written beside and sometimes beneath the poems. Some of it is done in Chinese written characters. Most of it appears to have been done in the author’s handwriting (the Chinese written characters too?). Turning the book sideways, we may be reading notes about the writing of the poem, or more often quotations from Edward Sapir or Rachel Carson. There are also asterisks and footnotes.
All in all, the earnestness and skill of the work make the book, despite its targets, a pleasure to read. It is the poet’s second volume, and does show a few signs of eager novelty-making. The only one that made me bite my teeth was this one: “she/ tumults through school years”. High school kids used to do that, I remember.
So what is the problem I want to bring attention to? Well, it lies more in an attribution than in a strophe by Ms Wong. What we might call the title poem, “forage, fumage,” takes up two pages, has handwritten phrases down and up the margins, and is followed by three footnotes, the third being this: “It is not mere chance that the more inland provinces such as Quebec, Manitoba, Ontario, and Saskatchewan bear Indian names while the maritime provinces or external coastal zones such as Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, British Columbia and Northwest Territories carry names with European origins. The political economy of conquest and trade can give more detailed answers than philology”. This is identified as a quotation from Marwan Hassan in a book titled Velocities of Zero.
If you Google about you will find quite a few academics named Marwan Hassan, but if you look for the title you will find that it is a book published in 2002 by TSAR Publications. That’s the book-publishing branch of a journal called The South Asian Review, not the University of Pittsburgh magazine of that name but a much more recent Toronto journal for Canadian immigrants from Asia who are interested in literature and social politics. Mr Hassan is described by Google as a fiction writer. His books have been issued by an Ottawa publisher that I must admit was unknown to me. Its name is Common Redpoll Books, and information about it is hard to find, such as the names of other authors it publishes.
Well, to get back to “forage, fumage”. The poem is about the Indian names for North American places, (I am willing to go along with Mr Hassan’s name for the Natives of America) and the non-Indian names that have replaced them. It starts a little wonkily, I think: “from the georgia strait to the florida strait, it sounds so americanned”. I am going to assume that Ms Wong means that the canning was not so much by America as by the USA. Yet, in a poem that is sensitive to place names and their origin, we should expect to hear that Georgia’s strait was named for a British king, and that Florida’s bears a Spanish name. (Ms Wong, at the time of the book’s writing, was dividing her time between Vancouver and Miami.) Anyway, the poem proceeds in an instructive and entertaining way, ending with the aforementioned quotation from Mr Hassan.
That’s what I have trouble with (that and unsureness about Ms Wong’s attitude toward the passage quoted). Let me start with its beginning. I do not believe that it is enough to say “it is not mere chance.” I have found that when people say that they are not well prepared to say what it is if it is not mere chance. Sometimes that phrase is used by conspiracy theorists. Does Mr Hassan suggest that a conspiracy is responsible for the naming of the Canadian provinces? He does seem to suggest that if you have a province on the edge of the ocean, chances are that it will have a European name. I would still like to have a better argument than that.
But let’s have a look at those province names. Three of the provinces that are called “more inland” by Mr Hassan have shorelines on the ocean, these being Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba. On the other hand, Alberta, one of our two landlocked provinces, was named after a member of the British royal family, just as the Strait of Georgia was. That naming was not done by chance, I agree; it was done by Princess Louise Alberta’s husband, who was the Governor General of Canada.
Of course, wherever the European sailors and politicians went they named things after what they knew back home. It was a way of fending off the fear of the unknown. That’s why, when they saw a bird that was a bit red up front they called it a “robin,” though it did not otherwise resemble the English bird. For another example, check out the Australian “salmon” or “magpie.” Look at early European paintings of the St Lawrence valley and notice the ancient European trees growing along the river’s banks.
To get personal for a while, I might report that I grew up in the interior of British Columbia, mostly in the Okanagan Valley. When I was a boy that valley was full of fruit trees, by the way, though a few feet from the trees you would find sagebrush, cactuses and tumbleweeds. I grew up surrounded by Indian names, some of them attached to places, some of them to human beings, though the ones attached to human beings were often European. So I was born in Penticton, and spent a lot of my childhood in Osoyoos, Kaleden, Kelowna, Tonasket, Omak, Wenatchee and Keremeos.
Well, it is true that I was a boy in a “maritime province,” but I was 400 road kilometers from the coast. Maybe that coastline was peppered with the colonists’ christenings. But wait—when I moved to the coast I had to remember how to spell Coquitlam, Nanaimo, Qualicum, Tsawwassen and Squamish, not to mention Tacoma, Tillamook and Chehalis. I am betting that as a fellow growing up in British Columbia I knew a lot more Indian names than I would have growing up in Ontario, that “more inland” province.
You will notice that I am not calling down Rita Wong’s book or even her poem. I am just reporting a snag in my reading, and paying attention to an idea I picked up long ago as a young poet trying to learn—that a poem is not a jewel to be appraised by a jeweler, as I was instructed by my New Critics-reading English 101 professor, but rather the field to be entered by readers who are interested in learning more by interlocution. There is so much curiosity and attention and brain in Rita Wong’s forage, that you really do want to get in on the conversation and that way see where she will alight next.
1486 w. October 30, 2011