Rita Wong, forage

To be blunt, postmodern art makes me tired. Postmodern examples of what used to be called art (paintings, installations, sculpture) spark my imagination, definitely, but I don't know what to do with them once I'm lit, and I lose both focus and interest. Some would say that's an intended effect, a social commentary, and that's fine, but I'm all about the engagement. I have a tough time seeing engagement in the self-consciously postmodern, though I've been assured by reasonably reputable sources that there's some there.

So when I heard that Rita Wong's book forage was a collection of postmodern environmental poems, I didn't know what to expect, or what that meant. Environmental matters are always about communities, either communities affected by an issue or communities who see themselves as bearers of a particular meaning. Without engagement, environmentalism is just tourism. What was Wong going to do in this book, and how was she going to deliver?

Deliver she does, too. For one thing, she uses postmodern conventions not to mark individuality or strangeness but to embed herself and her readers in a larger (but specific) community and discourse. She links herself repeatedly to other writers, for example, both Canadian and international, contemporary and classical, but - importantly - the other voices in her book are as likely to be activists and scientists as they are to be poets and theorists. To the same effect, she asks her reader to connect English words to Chinese symbols, declining to provide translations of the symbols. There are handwritten marginal notes throughout this book, some of them functioning as footnotes, some as glosses, some presumably for the reader's own inspiration. Intertextuality sometimes feels like bragging (to me, anyway), but not here.

Plus the poetry flat out works. Here are the closing lines of the angry "after 'The Stars' by Ping Hsin":
after fire carriages have ripped through
sweetgrass, sage, canyons, crags,
wrecked indigenous homelands
tore coal out of mines
drained water from wells
sacrificed celestials every mile
more disfigurement than development
we summon precautionary principles
in agriculture, manufacture
voluntary simplicity
coyotes bare their sharp teeth
have the last howl

I come away from forage more aware and more desirous of engagement, and that's a rare thing for me. In the last few years I've only read a half-dozen books with that effect on me, and since I spend most of my reading time looking for this effect, I know what I'm talking about.

A very good place for info about Rita Wong is at Rob Mclennan's 12 or 20 Questions blog. I like that she doesn't begin by naming Vancouver as her home, instead referring to it initially as "the unceded Coast Salish lands known as Vancouver." Clearly this isn't just a T-shirt slogan for her! A book and a writer worth getting to know, I'd say, and I'm looking forward to teaching forage this fall.


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