Ken Belford, ecologue

All this semester my BC lit students have been admiring the poetry volumes that Caitlin Press and Nightwood Editions have been putting out recently. I've got several of them now, and they're lovely little artifacts: Gillian Wigmore's Soft Geography, Ken Belford's lan(d)guage, Rita Wong's forage, Tim Bowling's The Witness Ghost, Philip Kevin Paul's Taking the Names Down from the Hill, just lovely.

Harbour Publishing distributes all these books, thus making it very close to my heart, so I hate to say it, but their own books are a little less physically attractive than many of the ones they distribute. I'm hopeful that this hasn't affected my response to Ken Belford's 2005 ecologue, but listen, I'm a shallow guy. You never know what'll set me off.

But more seriously, it's been two weeks since I finished this book. I set it aside for some perspective, and since then I've marked 70 essays, written a discussion paper, and responded to about a hundred emails. The search for perspective faded away rather, and that's a shame because this book - while lacking some of the polish and juice of the 2008 lan(d)guage - has a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that mixes nicely with the swinging rhythms. It sounds partly like slam verse, cranky and assertive, but I kept thinking of strange little country songs from my youth, too, ones with lines too embarrassing for me to admit to humming against my will through gritted teeth to this day ("my boots are Tony Lama, / My hat's a Stetson, of course...").

This book came across to me as less consistent than the new volume, though this may be partly because of the separate sequence in ecologue called "leaving andamayin" (a river north of Smithers). The rest of the book is of a piece, even though it's divided into titled sections, so the distinct sequence distracts me somewhat. In my reading this book had strong flashes, of different voices and showing different purposes, but I wanted more of them.

There's the intentionally plain, the under-poetic naivety of love:
At 58 I went to my desk
and took out a paper and wrote
I love you and looked out
over the lake and across my life
and thought about farewells
. (p.62, close of "Retouch")
There's the direct objection, the complaint couched in abstractions:
                          I don't
believe in a mythic golden age
or the dominant view
so I collaborate in contexts
that don't close in on
themselves. (p.4, "City limits")
There are even lines like a koan:
A poem isn't a dog
until it bites you
and becomes a story
that won't go away.
(p.37, "Corresponding divisions")
I won't quote it, but "Remember, suppose, say" is worth the price of admission all by itself. A small and earnest poem that's still a bit self-deprecating, it has lots of what I think of as proper to a Ken Belford poem. It's less assertive than "The suicide economy" and the rest of the slammish verse, more personal than political, but can't we all stand for a complicated love poem - a simple poem about a complicated love - at least once in a while?

This book moved way up in my reading list because of  my great pleasure in lan(d)guage. I preferred lan(d)guage, certainly, but I'm pleased to have spent time with ecologue as well.


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