Ken Belford, Decompositions, Talonbooks, Vancouver, 2010, 96 pp. pb $16.95
The 92 untitled and interconnected poems of Ken Belford’s Decomposition (2010) start with a version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:
It just happens the idea
of meaning exists only
in fiction, where it takes on
a life of its own. The evolution
of the living image pleases
our dispositions but the pliable
appearance does not walk around
on the ground and lives only in
the fictional world of flashback
and dream. The reality is, scenes
take place, and these impossible
events, these replications of
objects that are not very much
like the world are secondhand
experiences, an idea, a likeness
of scenery, or an event staged
in front of a microphone.
Belford’s version differs from Plato’s in interesting ways. “Evolution,” connoting as it now does adaptation, puts a new twist on the way “the living image” changes as it registers on the sensorium, and “disposition,” connoting “mood” or “temperament,” conceptualizes the sensorium as more erratic, more dependent on chance, than Plato had it.
Belford may be presenting, as fact or the foundation of his own philosophy (since this is the book’s first poem) the Enlightenment’s or Kant’s interpretation of the allegory. This view holds is that none of us inmates ever gets to turn around to look directly at the parade of reality and the fire beyond that throws shadows on the sensorium, shadows that are “not very much like the world.” There is no Socrates, Buddha, or Christ to tell us what is or what method of dialectics, conscience or meditation will lead us to what is. There are only us sophists and scientists, catching familiar patterns in the moving shadows, drawing connections, testing, comparing, hypothesizing, and affirming (as bravely as possible) propositions and theories that we know will take us only part way.
Note Belford’s rhetoric of certainty: “It just happens [to be that]” . . . . “The reality is . . . .” The point of view is first-person plural — Belford is speaking for us, telling us what it is with “our dispositions.” Also, the proposition is put in commonplace terms and in present tense — is positioned right in front of our faces — and is made up of abstractions presented in prepositional phrases attached to other abstractions: “the idea of meaning,” “the evolution of the living image,” “the fictional world of flashback and dream,” “the replications of objects,” and “a likeness of scenery.” In other words, the abstractions seem carefully sifted and sorted, as if it can be assumed that the connections have all been worked out. The poem is made up of three fairly long and conventionally punctuated sentences. The sentences convey assertions seemingly made in the certainty that the proposition is common knowledge or so self-evident that it can safely be dumped into our laps in a hurry.
This confidence—what Barry McKinnon has described as “ontological certitude” — has always characterized Belford’s delivery. Here it’s illustrated by a poem from Sign Language, a chapbook published by McKinnon in 1979:
when the lights go on
circle us, an over flow
of fluid, without
I am on time
since I handle the lamps right.
I swing them casual
and step out
at my own pace.
I will not forget
who I am
or why I am going
Donna Kane, in a recent Malahat review of Belford’s immediately previous book, Lan(d)guage: a sequence of poetics (2008), speaks of his “declarative tone” and his “prophetic stance.” Such a stance may seem at odds with a person to whom revelation has been denied, to whom meaning is fiction. But that view itself reveals a method in which a person of the Enlightenment can have a faith as strong (more in the sense of stubborn than assured) as any religious, ideological, nationalistic or ethical one — a faith in “reason.”
The second poem begins to illustrate that faith. This poem is utterly the opposite of its predecessor, a poem in the first person but singular this time, not plural, with the poet identifying himself as “Ken” and speaking to us, not for us. It is a poem devoid of abstractions that provides Ken’s readers, provides us, with an anecdotal summary of his search for what is:
I was a man, the story goes, who needed
a name, but before I get to it, let me tell you
the stories about my other name.
My pen name was Ken.
Some of you follow my name around.
My poems are my only property.
I was unsuccessful at love and work,
but was generous with my money
and gave it away as it came in.
Stories were written about me,
but narratives were imposed on my work
and all of them ignored my complexity.
I pissed out the windows of my friends,
puked on the doorstep of my neighbour,
and drank in the local dive.
My name was an empty space
but according to one version,
Si followed me home to Hazelton
and went up to me as I reached my tent.
When my poems are read out
it is in the context of my name story.
I have had to cope with competing narratives
but my name was chosen by me
and the variations of the tale
are my attempts to explain him.
Here, the punctuation swiftly shifts to line-end, while the first words of main clauses, the upper-cased first letters of the first words of sentences, and the conjunctions and prepositions that start clauses and phrases shift to line-beginning. This correspondence of sentence and line, of meaning and breath, indicates conclusiveness. However, if the delivery is more controlled than in the first poem, where the sentences are broken by the line endings, the message is that Belford is basically unsettled. He says he is “looking for himself,” as the cliché has it. His search for himself is a “story.” The story has “competing narratives,” that are not entirely mutually exclusive but are “attempts” at explanation.
As “the story goes,” Belford has two names. The first is a “pen name” or pseudonym. It’s the name on the book’s cover, “Ken.” Pseudo Ken is the teller of the story, the “I.” A pseudonym implies a real name, one that Pseudo Ken is about to “get to.” This real name, Pseudo Ken’s “other name,” “was an empty space.” Note the past tense, implying that Pseudo Ken is filling or has filled that space. The first implication, that the space has not been filled but is less empty now, seems to be affirmed in the poem’s last line, which is in present tense, indicating that Pseudo Ken’s attempts to “explain” the Other or Real Ken are ongoing. Pseudo Ken refers to himself, in the last line, in the third person, but uses the pronoun “him,” not a proper noun, not an actual name. This actual name remains the object of his search, the theme of his ongoing “name story.”
In the context of his story, Ken attempts to identify that of which he is certain and that of which he isn’t — Kant’s methodology, the beginnings of the psychology of rational consciousness. He indicates that his poetry is a success: “my poems are my only property.” This is convincing since we are holding his book. Furthermore, he asserts that some of us are not just readers but also fans — we “follow” him. Since I have read most of Ken’s books, I pretty much have to agree that Ken has reason to be confident of his poetic success.
But about other aspects of his life Ken says he is less certain. There are “versions,” some of them “conflicting,” of the story. This is a warning to us followers. We ourselves will have to make some judgments, to be skeptical about Ken’s directions as we follow him around.
About “love” and “work,” for example, Ken says that he was “unsuccessful.” Can this be true? Is Ken misreading/mistelling his own story? There are poems to Alice (Ken’s first wife) and Hannah (their daughter) throughout Ken’s books, from Fireweed (1967) to the selection Pathways into the Mountains (2000), that indicate that he loved them both and felt loved. Certainly the poems register the difficulty of love; “Origins” in The Post Electric Cave Man (1970) expresses the sense of smothering alienation from “a woman/who is my wife, partly.” But other poems express sympathy and affection, and a number of poems in Pathways indicate nostalgia for his lost life with wife and daughter in the wilderness:
The water flowed and filled our pail
Those years our family lived
Together under one roof,
A roof we made together, us three.
As for “work” (not the poetry, which has been defined as “property”), all the books, especially The Post Electric Cave Man, mention assorted jobs on highway crews and in mining, logging and ranching. These “work poems,” different from those of Tom Wayman and to a certain extent of Patrick Lane in that if Ken complains it’s mostly about himself, do indicate a kind of failure or futility. In “The Highways Crew,” Ken mentions “filling the same/damn hole . . ./wanting/it left there.” “Branches Back Into” describes Ken’s inadequacies as a chain man surveying for a road—inadequacies that are hauntingly akin to those we feel in following Ken:
His job was
to walk in
front of me. . . .
I followed him, holding
my end of the chain
in the one hand, in
the other, a
small axe for
notching the trees. No
one has since
followed us, or
built the road
it was to be, be. I . . .
remember few words
passed between us, he
ahead of me
with his instruments
recording it all,
can remember, too, how
I answered him,
never once faltering,
ago I had lost
my axe and was
to tell him.
On the other hand, the poems about the guiding operation that Alice, Hannah and Ken developed on the upper Nass River indicate that Ken moved from his various laboring jobs to work that satisfied him. In Lan(d)guage, Ken describes the joys and frustrations of his business and announces, repeatedly, that it is a “good” business. “Cheap travel,” he says, makes “fly fishing is an affordable pleasure.” It is a “romantic” pleasure, “and men are suckered in by fantasies,” but “the release [of fish] is in good taste” and “The Blackwater is good to look at/And has been a good investment for my Daughter./I see good in what she is doing.” Also, “My Ex is well behaved and obedient on the river.” Ken says he was not so well behaved: “Back then I took the good with the bad./Some of the assholes were always good for a laugh . . . ./In the winter months I helped the bourgeois/Organize their thoughts and make decisions./On the river I gave good advice.” His last sentence, with its ambiguous sequence of tense, “The fact is, I never had it so good” (not “I’d never” or “I’ve never”) seems to apply both to his life now and his life on the Blackwater.
Other sources confirm what Ken says here. McKinnon’s account of his visiting Blackwater Lake in Going Someplace (Cocteau Books 2000) confirms the business’s success and, in assorted interviews for media, Ken has indicated his satisfaction with what he did. On 15 May 2005, he told Hardy Friedrich, in an interview for the Prince George Free Press, “I was in eco-tourism before they even coined the phrase.” Friedrich adds that Ken “was referring to his successful guiding outfit, from which he has since moved on.”
The fact that Ken was generous with money is too generalized to explain Ken. If you think of donations to Sally-Ann Santas at Christmas, it seems admirable, but less so if you think of buying rounds in “the local dive,” which you just might do a few lines down the poem when Ken adds drinking in that dive to his summary of narratives.
The drinking is classified among “narratives imposed on my work.” The difference between the “stories” (that were written about Ken) and the “narratives” (that were imposed on his work) seems to reside in the idea that “stories” are evolving things and “narratives” are fixed or preconceived. In Lan(d)guage, Ken defines narrative as “an evocative story/suitable for replay.” The “imposed” narratives are itemized: “I pissed out the windows of my friends,/I puked on the doorstep of my neighbour,/and drank in the local dive.”
For those of us who follow Ken around, this is as surprising as Ken saying that he was unsuccessful in love and work; there is next to nothing in Ken’s early poetry about these three activities, which presumably are connected. I can think of only a couple of poems, like “Omega” (Fireweed) where Ken could be talking about uncontrolled drinking: “The dog in the snowbank is dead/Because he trusted me as meat/And I fed him wine for a laugh.” However in Lan(d)guage Ken, in a confessional mood maybe, starts alluding to this part of his past: “I used to drink myself stupid/and wander through the towns looking lost.”
So it is in this sense that Ken says “my name was an empty space.” The narrative about his drinking was true, but meaningless. It was “imposed” on him in the sense that others made much of it. Ken never implies, though, that he was put upon. He acceded to the drinking narrative, and takes full responsibility for this as well as for the drinking: “My name was chosen by me/and the variations of the tale/are my attempts to explain him.” Ken accepts the burden of the idealistic view of the sensorium; what is perceived is imposed by the sensorium and so the responsibility of the self. You face up to and learn from your actions and from conclusions that others have drawn about you.
These others in Ken’s case would be his editors and publishers, since there was no serious criticism of Ken’s poems until Greg Lainsbury’s paper, delivered at the MLA convention in Philadelphia on 30 December 2006. And there has been no biographical writing about him except Barry McKinnon’s 2007 “Search: Ken Belford/Invisible Ink,” in It’s Still Winter: A Web Journal of Contemporary Canadian Poetry and Poetics.
McKinnon, who has become an important chronicler of BC small press poetry and the BC poetry scene, makes nothing of what drinking he and Ken did, except that it lubricated talk of poetry, and he mentions no impromptu pissing and puking. The Post Electric Cave Man, however, shows Ken and another writer, Pat Lane, on the cover. The photo indicates a friendship, and Lane’s Very Stone House had earlier co-published Fireweed with Talon. The two poets are holding hunting rifles and staring menacingly out over mountainous terrain. Drinking, pissing and puking would seem to be more adequate a summary of some narratives imposed/self-imposed on the poems of Patrick Lane rather than those of Belford, and here the two are associated.
Al Purdy too wrote about drinking and its symptoms, and it was his Storm Warning anthology of 1971 that gave Ken some prominence as part of “the new generation of poets who would ‘supplant’ (though not necessarily eclipse) the present-day literary establishment in Canada.” Ken is pictured against a backdrop of bush and a rough shack, sitting on a wicker chair dressed like Jeremiah Johnson and smiling vaguely as if quietly exulting over the North American Indian male person he has just fought to the death. For Purdy, Ken was “a rumor and legend” rather than a fellow good old boy, but again there is an association. Purdy published the poem about Ken poisoning his dog (as well as a poem about killing an Arctic grouse and a “statement” about shooting horses). He saw Ken as he saw Lane, as a kind of psychotic yokel with the gift of poetry.
“But,” Ken continues, seemingly leaving behind narratives about his earlier self and moving on to a contrasting one about his more recent self, “according to one version/Si followed me home to Hazelton/and went up to me as I reached my tent.”
Si is familiar to us followers of Ken. Lan(d)guage was dedicated to her and Decompositions is too. So far as I know she appears for the first time in the literary record in connection with Ken in The Capilano Review 2:43 (42 on the title page), Winter 2004, in George Stanley’s “special section” entitled “Northern Poets.” Her last name is Transken, and her work is presented next to Ken’s. The “Contributor’s Notes” says that she “has been teaching in social work programs for eight years; she has a background in anti-poverty anti-racist feminist activism. Her doctorate is in Equity Studies/Sociology of Education but she is doing another MA in First Nations Studies/Creative Writing at the University of Northern British Columbia. She is old white bush trash being recycled. She has edited collections of creative writing such as This Ain’t Your Patriarch’s Poetry Book and Outlaw Social Work.”
Judging by the Capilano Review selection, Si writes protest poetry, in the tradition of, say, Sharon Stevenson, another important figure, from 1969 – 71, in the Prince George literary community. For Stevenson poetry is indoctrination and for Si it is therapy. Stevenson’s poems feature titles like “You’re Doomed if You Leave the Working Class” and “Poetry too Has a Class Nature,” while Si’s poems feature titles like “How Senior Academics May Gang Rape Your Mind” and “Contemporary Women/Students/Clients/and Millennium Love.” In both poets, otherwise dead polemical poetry can once in awhile leave political polarizing and show a sensitivity to human experience, a knowledge of life and a care for line and image.
In 2005, Si and her student Jorge Kelly presented a paper at the Writing Way Up North symposium on northern BC writing, in which she described Ken as a model member of a supportive local writing community and confessed to a certain bias “because of my relationship to him.” She also says that she met Ken at a “writer’s event.”
So Ken in his second poem seems to be stage-setting, for maximum dramatic effect, his meeting with Si. He does this not just by fessing up to what he previously played down or thought unimportant (drinking), not just by writing off his first marriage as a failure of love, not just by claiming failure at work, and not just by leaving out other narrations we know of (the softer, gentler, more ardently environmentalist Ken of Pathways, the Ken who spent years contributing to the negotiations that led to the Nisga’a Treaty), but also by staging his meeting with Si on his old turf, putting her face-to-face with the old Ken. By doing that, he implies a “Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus” conversion.
The nature of the significant new version of Ken’s name story that hinges on the advent of Si may be indicated by Si’s paper at the symposium on northern writing. “Prince George Writing: Creating Comfort and Community Differently” is an account of Prince George poetry that evokes an image of the typical male poet as urban or rural working-class hellraiser (Lane and Purdy) and contrasts that image to that of the typical local Prince George poet, including Ken, that Si encountered on arrival in Prince George in Autumn 2000. Si says she has since been a willing participant in the local writing scene because of what she encountered and of course mainly because of Ken.
Both kinds of poets are “real writers” — that is they write good poems. But the Prince George poets direct their poems to doing social good. Ken’s poems gain him “minimal material reward,” but “contribute significantly to a sense of community being cultivated. Ken donates copies of his works to fundraising events, takes his poetry into logging camps, wilderness retreats,” and “shares his creative voice equally with academics and street people.” Other Prince George poets like Barry McKinnon and Rob Budde, both creative writing instructors, the first at the college and the second at the university, “nourish community” in ways like Ken and also are “organizers” of literary events and teachers of creative writing. As teachers, they work “without damage to a writer’s original voice or artistic self-esteem.” Overall, Ken, McKinnon and Budde “are community oriented”, “describe a world around them in which they wish for more social justice,” “welcome others into the circle of conversation,” “refuse the American arrogance,” and “have a sense of humor . . . that propels us forward into resistance writing.”
Si’s image of the Prince George writer’s opposite, the other “real writer,” is meant facetiously, in the sense that it is exaggerated. I can think of only one poet who fits the following description near-totally, and that is John Berryman, though he had actual “duties” at the podium. Si doesn’t give any actual examples, though obviously she means this type of real writer to represent a familiar reality:
The image of a “real writer” is someone who is white Anglo middle-aged to mature male, slightly tortured by the vastness and burden of his incredible and rare talent. He is drug/abusing/alcohol abusing/woman abusing emotionally volatile person — who must be forgiven these excesses and ugly traits because of the glory of his contribution to society. The “real writer” is someone who wears tweed, loves being at an academic podium, has no other hobbies or duties (except for those maniacal or manic ones mentioned above). Real writers publish in American hardcover and they do the talk show circuit. Many real writers become profoundly successful soon after they die. This is especially so if their death was accomplished through suicide or a homicide caused by a jealous husband or lover. Real writers are intense, obsessed, lonely, and self-absorbed. Very very self-absorbed. This type of “real writer” wouldn’t survive long in Prince George.
As well as Lane and Purdy, this calls to mind a number of Ken’s literary associates — indeed a whole milieu of poets centered in Vancouver through the sixties and seventies when Ken established his reputation. Red Lane’s Letters to Geeksville, published by McKinnon in 1976, is a look at the scene in the early sixties when Tish was being published and Pat Lane was running Very Stone House. Red Lane describes certain alcohol-driven, highly volatile events featuring people like Maxine Gadd, Jamie Reid, bill bissett and Daphne Buckle (Marlatt) where poems and criticism and on occasion insults and blows are exchanged: “Bissett has published a magazine Tish-like that is fuck offul & terrible poems — Dappy buckle read out of her novel not too bad but affectitious mostly” (October 1963).
Si’s description also calls to mind the writings of Brian Fawcett, a prominent Vancouver poet/publisher, connected to Prince George because he was born and grew up there and made much of the town in a series of poems and stories. The stories especially (starting with Friends in1971) became popular and put the town on the literary map of Canada (with “American hardcover” publication, Prince George became Akron, Ohio). Like Red Lane, Fawcett describes, from the first-person point of view, a lot of pissing, puking and drinking, not to mention sexual predation and abuse. These are presented (as they are in Lane) as the products of a resource-extraction milieu as much as the products of machismo, but still the machismo is evident. The first writer that grabbed Fawcett’s attention in his youth was Hemingway. Fawcett saw him as a model of courage, honor and honesty.
Si’s satirical description of Real Writers echoes too what some feminist critics, prominent among them Angela Bowering, Daphne Marlatt and Pauline Butling, have said about George Bowering, Fred Wah (Butling’s husband) and Frank Davey of the Tish school, the originators of the Vancouver scene in which Ken came to prominence, as well as about Fawcett and some others like McKinnon. Abuse of alcohol and women and emotional violence are mentioned in Angela Bowering’s fictionalized memoir Piccolo Mondo. This account focuses on the Tish group. Butling has reported that Marlatt was traumatized by the “male ethos” of Tish, notably its physical and emotional violence — Creeley punched Bowering, Wah threatened to punch Purdy, Robert Sward punched Robin Skelton. Fawcett was attacked for relegating his wife Sharon Thesen to work as typist on Iron etc (she does appear too as a contributor and editor, but it seems this work was abbreviated by her primary duty as typist) and McKinnon for erasing, in his 1988 history BC Poets in Print (Open Letter), a whole history of women’s “non-aggressive,” “supportive” and “cooperative” editing and publishing in favor of a male tradition that pushed and illustrated “patriarchal values of dominance, aggressiveness and competitiveness.”
Much of what Butling, Si et al say about community and poetry is of course off the point, is politics, as is Si’s statement that the macho type of real writer would not survive long in today’s Prince George. Presumably the macho poet should stay out of Dodge or be loved to death. It’s true that the narrative of the wild poet (mostly male) propagates the false idea that self-destruction and the use of mind-altering substances contribute to writing and are even (as Si says) signs of genius. But the narrative of the nurturing poet (usually female) propagates the equally false idea that sensitivity and responsible social action contribute to writing and indicate genius. The wild poet destroys himself with drugs and excludes and hurts people usually by over-aggressively pushing a favored poetics. The responsible poet, concerned as Si says to protect individual voice and self-respect, fails to push any poetics. Good poetry is “good” poetry, measured by the cause it espouses.
Note the quote from Red Lane. He states his opinion clearly, and had that opinion been expressed in that setting at the time (rather than just in the letter to Bowering) it could have hurt bissett and Marlatt. It could also have helped. Poets like Red Lane and Purdy have become important benchmarks of aesthetic opinion for subsequent poets. The matter of how they put their opinions has turned out to be irrelevant. Lane told Bowering very directly that he thought “Creeleyesque” writing was not right for him, “crossing a line” in their friendship. Purdy was sensitive about discouraging young poets and tried to say nothing about the writing of his friends, but was candid about his equals. He got beer sprayed in his face for telling Atwood she was an “academic.” It may be better for writers to have opinions put strongly and poetics argued vehemently than to encounter silence or generalized approval out of a concern for “voice” or ego.
The longer anonymous blurb on the back cover of Decompositions, suggests that Ken is now solidly in line with assorted prevailing causes and their related virtues: environmental awareness, open-mindedness, and social engagement. It says that he understands the land “as a complex living organism,” that his poetry “explores linguistic and political particulars from a gaze that is opposite to the shelters of convention, the academy, the city or the south,” and that he offers “a social engagement that is at once larger and other than the consumer discourse of trade and ownership” as well as a “self-taught language of subsistence [that is not] aligned with the well-worn ancestral narratives of our forefathers.” Also he features “a consciousness informed by the latest recognitions of science and technology.”
Obviously this is the new, more politically correct Ken as described in Si’s paper. It also, in referring to “the latest recognitions of science and technology,” confirms something that Kane points out in connection with Ken’s declarative and prophetic stance: “His lines are often rife with scientific references ranging from the emission of light rays to string theory to computer and cognitive science. This referential element has the effect of authority (and sometimes humour), and the poems often take the structure of a rational hypothesis, particularly in Belford’s treatises on poetry.”
But obviously too this cover blurb tells another competing narrative, which is that Ken is near godlike in his poetic abilities. Ken accedes to this narrative as the second poem indicates, and likely in the sense too that he would’ve have approved of the blurb appearing on his “property.” Unfortunately the blurb praises him in bafflegab, ignores his complexity in failing to account for competing narratives, and so is unconvincing. The invitations to compare/contrast “engagement” to “discourse” and “language” to “narratives” are mind-boggling. The blurb is also scary. If we take it as mere advertising in that it is characteristic of book covers in the postmodernist age, we are then implicating Ken and his publisher in “the consumer discourse of trade and ownership” that Ken and postmodernist publishers are said to be beyond. That we hope Ken in particular is beyond.
The fact is, Ken’s gaze cannot be “opposite” to “the academy, the city or the south.” The fact is, a southern press (Talon) published the book, and that press, which also published Ken’s first two books, is located (according to the publishing-data page) in the city of Vancouver which is south of Prince George and New Hazelton. The magazine from which that press derived, it too based in that southern city, published most of Ken’s earlier poems. Ken’s most significant community of writers, therefore, could be, in the present as in the past, Vancouver rather than Prince George. Second there is a blatant contradiction in mentioning that Ken’s gaze is opposite to the “academy” and saying that his consciousness is informed by “the latest recognitions of science and technology.” Surely most of these recognitions are produced by the academy. Ken in fact, by providing in a couple of poems footnotes (in the name-date style required by the American Psychological Association), indicates that his involvement in the academy includes concern even for its protocol.
The possibility of Ken’s acceding to the idea that he features a “self-taught language of subsistence” worries me — though I’m not clear on what such a language would be. Can that language of subsistence, with “its sub-text rooted in questions of both origin and evolution,” truly be unaligned with the “well-worn ancestral narratives of our ancestors,” those narratives “representing uncolonized spaces as a return to a golden age?” Is the author saying that our ancestors spoke of the wilderness as the remains of lost Eden whereas Ken speaks of it more meaningfully because he is informed about “the latest recognitions of science and technology” which enable him to better understand how we can “subsist” in the wilderness?” This might detach Ken from old myths but it attaches him to newer ones, those of progress, postmodernism, and the haywire survivalist techno-anarchistic illusions about going back to the land that carried over from the hippy New Left into postmodernism.
Postmodernism defames canonical literature for favoring an aesthetic of “pleasure” or “entertainment” that involves confirming a culture’s/audience’s existing prejudices, ideologies and faiths and consequently ignoring important issues like the inequality of sexes, classes and races and the progressive upsetting of the “balance of nature” by technology and technique. The works of Sappho, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare and Austen are considered stupid and equated to contemporary advertising and political discourse.
The old Ken was not at all pretentious on these issues:
of the bee, most
the truth in parts,
strangely full of
error in others,
the old foolish
notions which he
had gathered from
the legends and
in this, that as
he says, they are
driven by and
possess a share
of the universe,
the breath of heaven,
for they think
the deity moves
through all lands
and spaces of the sea,
and deep of heaven;
that hence all flocks,
every kind of wild beasts,
each one at birth
derive the delicate spirit
and so in the course of things,
are restored to this fountain
and thither return again by dissolution,
and there is no room for death.
You can’t get any closer than this to the anthropomorphic heart of nature poetry, to the essence of “golden age” myths (no mutability or death), and to a balanced, appreciative look at an older writer’s work. Ken understands that, while there is progress in scientific and technical knowledge that progress is slow and has little effect in evolving morality and art. If the classic writers said little about the various inequalities and injustices that concern our age, they had lots to say about more basic things, things even closer to individuals — how men react to fighting a protracted war, how sexual love tears open individuals, families and societies, how pride and ambition change people, how technology erodes traditional attitudes including those about nature. They include the good and the bad results of basic, inescapable human traits.
Classical writers often give voice to specific causes and some localized idea of progress — Spenser and Milton, for instance, were overtly anti-Catholic, Wordsworth was against railways, big cities and the thinking that led to them, Eliot was for Anglicanism and the monarchy and Pound was a fascist. But they had to go deeper than polemics to make their arguments convincing. Jane Austen, for example “accepted” the patriarchal, oligarchic structures of her culture in that she seldom (except in Mansfield Park — which includes the issue of slavery) expressed or illustrated a definite politics, but she did display the constraints that attitudes about class put on both sexes and showed how individuals can find fulfillment despite them. About Allen Ginsberg’s superficial litany of societal failings in Howl Red Lane said, “are we to raise cry and take up arms over things that can be dismissed at will!” About pronouncements in poetry he said, “impression must always supercede expression in every sense — formula for a classic.”
Decompositions takes us straight into the “latest recognitions of science and technology,” but with no immediate sense that these have endowed Ken with a knowledge of, as the cover blurb breezily puts it, “bright openings to our undisclosed future.” Ken’s nose is close to the test-tube, his eurekas muted. The third poem examines the mistakes we make in life in terms of cognitive science (“outcome bias”) and computer-data formats, and promotes an experimental rather than a faith-based approach to experience:
when I broke free of assumptions,
I realized an error is a starting point,
and love, resembling wonder, is
the trajectory of buggy accidents.
Oh, incidents evolve, and
signs come in over many noisy feeds.
To Kane’s list of the scientific and technical disciplines evident in Lan(d)guage, Decompositions adds economic theory, biology, multivariable calculus, geology, land management, genetic engineering and postmodernism. Charting Ken’s new epistemological wavelength through Decompositions, a graph with time (sequence of poems) along the bottom and space (content) up the side climbing (for the appropriate symbolism, since Ken is known best for his life in the mountains and since modern poetry is known for speaking of “the thing itself”) from abstraction at the bottom and anecdote at the top, Pseudo Ken is ranging more often and more sharply from the mountains of anecdote into the valleys of abstraction (from the old Ken to the new Ken) and back. He starts off slowly, maybe at pains to condition us followers properly, with the totally abstract Poem #1, the totally anecdotal Poem #2, and the totally abstract Poem #3. Poem #4 moves faster, starting in abstraction (economic theory), moving up to anecdote, then turning down to abstract again. This frequency continues to the end of the book, with the peaks and troughs remaining extreme.
Difficult, in other words. Or, a better word maybe, challenging. Certainly chancy. But rational. The Si version of Ken’s story does not tell of Ken climbing onto the platform of political protest, or winging off into the lululand of Eleanor-Roosveltian do-goodism and purse-mouthed moral condemnation, or indulging in the what Alan Bloom calls the “conspicuous compassion” of the New Left and Postmodernism. Ken can on his new wavelength come close to making these mistakes. Lines like “systems of class are more dangerous than natural disasters” or “I transgressed the imagined and/resisted the ordered metaphors/of threat,” or “it’s a good idea to burn the G E crops” make him sound like (respectively) Karl Marx, Pauline Butling and Ludwig Wiebo. But he never settles into this sort of expression, always rises again into impression, reconfiguration and (sometimes) insight.
For us followers, the peaks of anecdote are familiar. We have been there before — the headwaters of the Nass River, the forests and ranches around New Hazelton, the mill town of Prince George. But the valleys of abstraction are unfamiliar. I spent more time googling than reading. When it seemed that Ken knew where he was going I was happy, but when I failed to see the application of abstraction to anecdote and had to rush to catch up, I cursed him (beneath my breath — Ken’s certainty is intimidating). I figured he was taking me through a kind of Reader’s Digest “hit parade” of great ideas from Scientific American, Paul de Man, National Geographic and Discovery Channel.
Obviously there’s no way that Ken really understands much of his new material. The practical applications of land management, forestry, geology, and biology fit into his past, and of postmodernist theory into his thinking about poetry, but those of string theory, variable calculus and economics don’t and the range is too wide to permit even a generalized familiarity. For a poet, however, this is enough. The more knowledge the better, of course, but Ken is searching for analogies, interesting language and rationality. He uses these, as he says at the end of the second poem, in “attempts” to “explain” himself. In these attempts he speaks in a revitalized voice, not a better poet than the old Ken, but a greater one. It would be impossible for him to improve on the great poems of his past, but he can produce more great poems in a new range.
Here’s the last in a series of three poems (one of three such series), where Ken explains himself in forestry jargon:
I am a big tree with small seeds and
my birds sing the age of an old field.
There is a balance between dispersal,
and relevance, and poetry. I write about
gap dynamics, and I live on the border
of abundance of any abandoned pasture
up to a hundred years old. I speak the
continuous explanatory of the variable
and have no liking for cattle.
This is a kind of metaphysical nature poem, strung from the old bromide of the poet/poem as tree and striding along comfortably (until the end) in trochaic pentameter. The second line features a metaphor that seems like pure “poetry” and the second-last line is onomatopoetic in the anapests and dactylls of its multisyllabic words. But the poem’s meaning is totally revealed when you google “gap dynamics,” which I had to do. You find much of what Ken is saying here, including the idea behind the image of birds singing the age of an old field. Gap dynamics is a technical term in forestry and seed dispersal and the proximity of pasture and abandoned pasture are considerations in the colonization of merchantable tree species. Many subsequent poems discuss gaps, which are also geological features, so the reader builds up a sort of expertise in the “code,” one of new pleasures in reading Ken. “Cattle” is part of the code — they signify (in other poems) both a threat to forest (studied by the foresters) and the ruminating nature poets of whom Ken disapproves. They kill the tree-like Ken poets.
Here’s a more difficult but better poem that describes an abstraction, realism, using terms and concepts from digital half-toning:
Primarily about the distribution of light,
realism is a synthetic noise called grey
that makes use of an orthodox theology,
images forced to lie on slabs of light.
Realistic images are filtered through grey
levels before light leaves the apparent
object on the way to bias. It’s one of the
synthetic examples of fashion hardware,
but belief (reaching out without selling out)
is the reason for poetry. When the viewpoint
is fixed, even the depth estimates are
conservative. And if the resolution of the
output image is the same as the input image,
then the illumination of the generated image
is grey, grey (Wong, Browne et al., 2008)
Here Ken’s disapproval of realism (entirely understandable in terms of the book’s first poem) is expressed in common words. Realism is “a synthetic noise.” “Synthetic” comes to be understood as “artificial” as in association with “fashion hardware” (buttons etc) and “noise” means “any sound that is undesired, unwanted or disturbing.” Calling the color “grey” a “noise” associates realism with age, imprecision (“grey area”), gloom, boredom and lack of cheer (Webster’s). Figuratively, Ken depicts realistic images as no longer “living” (as in Poem #1) but “forced to lie on slabs of light.” Torture and death are suggested here, in connection with realism’s “orthodox theology,” and so is photography which in a subsequent poem is alluded to as “fiction that/is on the film in the box that has a lens.” Halftones are “burned,” shot through powerful and hot arc-lights. Realism contrasts with “belief,” defined as “reaching out without selling out” (commitment with skepticism, the Enlightenment ideal) and as “the reason for poetry.” The “fixed” images of realism result in “conservative” (with connotations of “fixed” as well as “moderate” and “cautious”) “depth estimates,” “depth” indicating “profundity.”
The poem ends with one of the “laws” of half-toning, either quoted or paraphrased. The repetition of “grey” at the end suggests paraphrasing, since repetition would be unlikely in a quote from a science report, though Ken could have decided to cut off a clause starting with “grey” to get this effect. The statement of this law lends “scientific” credibility to Ken’s up-to-that-point purely rhetorical assertions about realism. Of course it doesn’t — analogies don’t do that, no matter how good they are and this one is very good. But even in science a good analogy is a potential step towards truth, a possible clue. The “law” says that with digital half toning what you put in is what you get out, and for Ken this means that if you put in realism you get grey or bleak. The footnote is a rhetorical effect intended to produce conviction, but in this poem it is more likely to induce a smile.
As you follow Ken you learn where to trust him. Economics, absolutely no. When he starts on it you can assume he is lost. Poem #4 explains economics as a “design” of the rich to create “systems of class” or a “widening gap” between rich and poor. Ken says that he was caught up in this, the “voluntary risks” that he took doomed to failure by the involuntary risk of birth — “our [evidently his and Alice’s] families were failures.” “So we took refuge in the mountains,” a voluntary risk that worked out. They found a relatively safe place, any disasters (“wildfires of the Nass,” “the Skeena floodline,” a “handmade home on a steep slope that looked like the upper Volta”) being “understood” and so less dangerous than “systems of class.” But “I lived in a flimsy economy.” This seems to have resulted in disaster, though that disaster is not specified, and the poems about Ken’s life with Alice and Hannah in the mountains suggest that it was a personal disaster more or more fundamentally than it was an economic one.
Ken’s idea that economics is explained as a conspiracy of the rich (“it takes money to buy design”) is vague. You can buy design (intention?) with charisma too. And beauty. Admittedly the implication is that the dangers of “systems of class” “can’t be understood,” but the idea of a conspiracy seems to be modified by the idea that the rich are themselves subjected to risk (“the canyons of the rich slough away in flood”) and the connected idea that “income continues” when this happens — ie, when the rich fail, the gap is narrowed, the poor are better off. This is not the case as Conrad Black continues to point out; usually a disaster for the rich is a disaster for the poor (which means to Conrad that the rich have an obligation to the poor to get richer). Ken’s theory needs to be developed and explained more clearly. Since he is theorizing about rich and poor, reading Marx might be a good start.
The poems that apply economic theory to Ken’s success, his poetry, are as hard to grasp as those that apply the theory to his work and love:
Market forces dictate what it costs to
flip a switch. It’s called the exchange rate
in the news, but market forces dictate
the level of penetration. Trends go up
faster than they come down unless
the sustainable level of the price of gas falls
below the national baselines of poverty
and ecosystem degradation. Management
poetry works the social hours, taking up
space and attention in classrooms and
academic journals, but the shanty dwellers
are unregulated and not influential.
Market forces dictate what you do, but first
you have to know enough to get started.
The first sentence indicates that market forces dictate everything, the flipping of a switch being a euphemism for starting things. The pronoun “It” in line 2 seems to refer back to “what it costs” which is asserted to be “the exchange rate.” Market forces can be said to determine the exchange rate when a country has not fixed the value of its currency in some way (by attaching it to the value of gold, for example). The “but” in line three is therefore confusing — should it be, rather, “Market forces dictate . . . the exchange rate . . . and . . . “the level of penetration?” “Level of penetration is the amount of the use of a product or service as a percentage of the total theoretical market. For example, 22% of Canadians over ten years of age own cell phones. “Trends go up/faster than they come down” could indicate penetration trends or exchange rate trends, probably the first. I could find no information on how fast these go up or down but obviously exchange rates would come down fast if the economy collapses, and penetration rates would stay the same. Collapse may be what Ken is saying would happen when “the price of gas falls below national baselines of poverty and ecosystem degradation.” This connection I do not understand.
Somehow this, all “dictated” by market forces, results in two kinds of poetry, “management poetry” and (in the next poem) “nonmarket poetry.” Nonmarket poetry is not mentioned in the list of things determined by market forces, so presumably management poetry is so determined. Management poetry, taught and studied in “classrooms and academic journals,” is used to regulate people — only the “shanty dwellers” escape it (and, maybe, produce it). But hold on. In this country even shanty dwellers go to school, and do “market forces” really or entirely dictate what is taught in school? The last two lines seem to indicate that, if you learn enough to get started (writing poetry, for example) what you do (write) will be dictated by market forces. “Learn” may refer back to “classrooms,” so Ken might actually mean that any formal study of anything (including poetry) puts you in the control of market forces. This seems excessively harsh. Many great poets who derived from shanties (Seamus Heaney) have said that they first encountered poetry in school and that that poetry was often presented with enthusiasm and sensitivity.
To me, Ken’s description of how poetry is effected by economic forces sounds like whining. Presumably poets — especially self-confident ones like Ken — would be best at poetics, so what Ken says about poetry would generally be more trustworthy than what he says about work and life, serving as a benchmark for appraising Ken’s attempts, through his post-Si narrative, to explain Real Ken. Of course there is the danger of the poet’s vested interest skewing the experiment — a danger that is fatal to this poem. A poem about poetry must itself be proof of the validity of its assertions (as in Wallace Stevens). A failed poem can’t express a credible poetics nor be proof of the effects of adverse economic forces.
But overall, Ken is good at writing poetry about poetry. The two poems discussed above are Ken pontificating, floating his message in on a tide of economic bafflegab and political sloganeering. But they do provide rough definitions of two kinds of poetry — definitions that become useful in reading further poems. Again, this is a feature of the new Ken — the poems are read individually but also accumulate. Definitions and symbolic anecdotes and scenes accrue. What seems to be the first principle of Ken’s poetics is explained when he says, “Only the few who have adjusted the models/even know what nonmarket poetry is.” So something like an experimental approach is needed.
Readers learn that other words attached to nonmarket poetry, when Ken is thinking of biology, forestry and land management, are “diversity,” “abundance,” “transitional” (as well as any other words with “trans” as a prefix), “abandoned,” “recombinant,” “wild” “migratory” and “nomadic.” When he’s thinking of aesthetic theory, connected words are “potential” and “contradictory.” When he’s into geology it’s “faults” “rifts” “plates” “shelves,” and when he’s into biology it is “mutations”. Opposing terms, for “management poetry,” taken from the disciplines mentioned above, are “realism,” “representation” “possessive” “institutional” “explicit” “surface” “light (or openness),” “pathogenic,” “canon,” “eastern,” “content,” and “control.”
Here’s an easy introduction to the good poems-about-poems. It’s a sort of “Portrait of the Poet as Item in Bestiary:”
The uniformly creamy Eastern Racer
spends the day basking or gliding
over ground in search of poems.
Generally absent from forested hillsides,
these residents of the open grassland
and pastures are able to crawl faster
than you or I can walk. Racers milk cows
and crawl back and forth over horse-hair
ropes, and their tongues tickle.
Wear protective clothing, and never
go to readings alone. Stay on paths
watch where you go, and never
stick your hands inside their pants. (80)
Here’s a kind of opposing species, unnamed but with a song and physique like Ken’s. Its habitat is further south than Ken’s, so perhaps it’s a related species (the Williams-type poet?):
Absent from the Yucatan Peninsula,
but heard as far north as New York
in hills and ravines, in the old forest
fragments, in the roots of blow-down
trees near muddy toxic streams and
fallen leaves, singing a complex jumble
of short rapidly uttered phrases,
large bodied, with long heavy feet,
ground dweller, primarily picks at
the pain of others, dreams in a cup
made of moss, departs after pairing.
In these poems Ken is away from analogies he doesn’t understand (ones from economics) and into those he does (ones from biology). Note that the Eastern Racer (not necessarily resident only in the east but more prevalent there?) can cover a lot of Lake-District-type landscape and actually knows (or says s/he knows) how to milk cows and whatever crawling over horse-hair ropes involves. Note too what cows generally represent to Ken (domesticated poetry). Racers can even crawl (which has derogatory implications) fast. They do something with their tongues that tickles. What this suggests is best left, I think, to the reader’s imagination, as is the significance of the fact that it’s safer for anyone who attends the readings of Eastern Racers not to put their hands in the Racer’s pants.
The large-bodied, tree-like, Ken-type Poet sings “a complex jumble/of short rapidly uttered phrases” that “picks at/the pain of others.” This is a good summary of what we are reading in Decompositions. This poet is less self-involved, it seems, more concerned about others. As opposed to the Eastern Racer, the Ken-type poet is also less active, more earth-bound, sleeping (like a tree) in a mossy hollow. And s/he tends to dormancy. Another poem explains that this is because s/he reads poems by the Racer and so is quickly driven to despondency:
I’m exhausted from
reading books whose pages
trace the progressively fatal
disease of serious writing,
especially the busy poem in
which every moment counts.
How short the surface of the
page when words are only
one-dimensional. In the under-
appreciated books I like,
meaning is measured by
saying no to the demands
of the possessive poem. Who
says good writing conveys
a strong sense of place?
The apparent attempts at
moral instruction from poets
who do not own their own
lives makes me think that about
is control, which is why I’m
not convenient, and more
temporary, why I long to be
idle and purposely dormant,
and accelerate away from
those empty places country
does not allow escape from.
Ken’s poems about poetry and poets are minor but fun. They sketch a strongly felt aesthetic in graphic terms. The above poem is not as good as the bestiary ones, showing Ken descending to “know-it-all” moralism. The essential data is missing. What does “poets/who do not own their own/lives” mean? What is a “possessive poem?” Maybe what’s missing here are anecdotes and/or names — which, since Ken has introduced footnotes into lyric poems, could easily be added. Would Ken want, after “books” in line two of the above, a note like (see Borson, Crozier, et al). Would he want, after “poets/who do not own their own lives, something like (academic poets)? Or (poets who get grants)? Or (see Skinner’s rats)?
If Ken doesn’t want to mention names, I’d recommend parody or satire. In this way his targets would be clearly identified but at the same time flattered that their poetry is considered worthy of satire by an important poet. Ken shows a real talent for satire — his poem about romantic love poetry includes parodic lines: “her sensations his skin, her loss his eyes, her sweat his body, her death his agony.” Ken could join in the efforts of his admirer Mckinnon who, in collaboration with David Phillips in their Jack Daw collection, parodies the great BC poets (including themselves). Here’s the old Ken:
here, north of it, there’s
always more, cold than a man,
knows, or knows
less. The wife grows
weak, the horses
starving. The moose can smell
a man, stumbling
upon himself in the under, growth.
one more round. In this
gun freezing to
the naked skin. Almost a
part of me now. Like the cold
emptiness of it. I grow
to expect less each time out.
soon night will fall
and then we’ll eat the last dog.
Daw gets at the fragmented syntax (the seemingly fractured intelligence) that opens into other meanings and stumbles towards the cryptic, pseudo-paradoxical utterance of the backwoods guru: “I grow/to expect less each time out.” This movement in Ken’s poems becomes a deeper wavelength when Ken is exploring analogies from science and technology. Daw may be thinking of imitating and exaggerating this too, though in Daw’s introduction to his Selected Poetry (available only through McKinnon) there’s an ominous hint that he may not now be up to it, his talents threatened by a vice Ken has abandoned. “Most of all,” says Daw, “I like to drink.”
As Kane puts it, there is the prophetic voice and the voice of rational hypothesis. It’s as if Ken is bringing them together, and so bringing together, in poetry, two hitherto irreconcilable movements in the academy — postmodernism, that rejects scientific positivism and the idea of a “human mind” present through the ages, seeing the mind strictly in historical and societal terms, and “cognitive science” that assumes a single, timeless human mind, describing it as a kind of complex computer. Because of this split, science is deprived of valuable data from the social sciences and literary criticism, and postmodernism descends into nihilism, “proving” that communication in any constructive form cannot exist and that any attempt to get at it through words and actions is hegemonic and therefore fatal to individual freedom and social equality.
Ken processes his narratives with strict attention to his locale (Old Ken) and to what Kane calls “the structure of rational hypothesis” (New Ken). When he succeeds, he blends the authoritative voice of science with the exploratory one of postmodernism.
As evidence of the merits of his poetics I offer the following from Ken’s ongoing exploration of “landscape” in poetry. First, a vague and unconvincingly polarizing complaint about other poets and an affirmation of his own superior intent in pursuing “theory:”
Landscape is an idyllic place
In the imagination, a claim of meaning
Farmed by old fogeys. I’m looking, not
For a theory that allows for duplication,
But a consonance that’s better.
Yadda, yadda. Postmodernist audiences will suck this up: Right on, man! Personally, I want a list of those fogeys, and wonder if Ken at his age should be using that word. But what Ken looks for he usually, eventually, finds. Here he ends up back again, while scouting for fish in his technician’s way, at the heart of landscape poetry:
In a small body of slowly moving water,
in the shadow of a Balsam sweeper,
laying still in the common supply of
the warmer waters of the lake, five
pairs each a metre long, they’d been
together all their lives, surfing yesterday
up the river in a pod. I knew because
I saw them enter, saw the arrangement,
the awareness, the commodities they
paid for with their lives, and I knew
the price was fixed. But I headed out
because the water was slowing, and
pans were forming in the bay. And then
in May I returned, my shadow on the river
once again. There they were in the rising
water, and I knew they remembered me
because there was something conscious
in that eye-to-eye flicker in the instant
before the waters turned and I carried on.
9568 words, June 10, 2010