Review of beholden: a poem as long as the river by Rita Wong & Fred Wah

Rita Wong & Fred Wah, beholden: a poem as long as the river. Talonbooks, 2018. $24.95 CAD   Order a copy at Talonbooks.com

Rita Wong & Fred Wah, beholden: a poem as long as the river. Talonbooks, 2018. $24.95 CAD

Order a copy at Talonbooks.com

The river of the title is the Columbia, its 2000 kilometre length represented by a narrow 114-foot-long banner that, when shown in gallery spaces, snakes suspended in mid-air, river’s meanderings north and south straightened to a strip of map that includes only the river and not the surrounding land. In this collaborative project, Wong and Wah have written a poem that flows in two continuous streams from the river’s source in BC’s East Kootenays to its five-mile-wide mouth giving on to the Pacific Ocean in Astoria, Oregon. The Columbia’s name in several First Nations’ languages means “big river,” and the poem contains it all.

In the book, which was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, the map-strip poem is reproduced on 137 pages, with a smattering of delicate line drawings by Nick Conbere (who also created the map) of plants, animals, landscape, and the occasional human feature. The authors’ voices are distinguishable on the page, since Wong’s words are handwritten while Wah’s are typeset. One poet writes along each shore, switching sides when they encounter a bridge. It’s a long engagement with the territory that the river traverses, and with the Columbia itself.

My grounding in the book and the river began when I was able to locate a portion of the shore that I had actually walked along, at the confluence of the Columbia and the Kootenay rivers near Castlegar, BC. Coincidentally, that is the one place where the poetic lines cross two bridges on a single page, encircling the area I’d walked. The words in that circle of text include “when will we ever learn” from Wah and “right relations to be learned” from Wong (50). There is much to be learned in beholden, and much to celebrate, and to honour.

The poem begins with the words “Listen” (Wah) and “sacred starts here” (Wong). Its last words are “silence” (Wah) and “river” (Wong). It’s in many respects a weaving of Wah’s research-infused storytelling with Wong’s prayerful writing and commitment to activism. Wah says  “flesh against bone water over bedrock even if the rapids are gone this water’s the story we must tell ourselves we have to think we hear the silence trust the undertow to be real” (82-83), and Wong cautions that change won’t be effected “until water justice enters our pumping hearts beat by elemental beat, as gravity guides water to the lowest places” (83).

Wong is well-known for her ecopoetics, more specifically the ‘poetics of water’. As I write this review, Wong is serving a 28-day sentence in a BC prison for protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline, and I’m striving here to honour her commitment as a compassionate and ethical guardian of water, and of land.

beholden is in part a lament for what’s been lost in “homes, farms, hunting grounds” (Wong, 35-36), and a challenge to what’s often obscured in renaming: “don’t call a reservoir a lake, don’t naturalize the hubris… listen for what’s underneath the narrative of convenience” (Wong 28-29). The Columbia is one of the most dammed rivers in the world, choked by fourteen dams including the massive Grand Coulee Dam. All this industrial and imperialist activity altered the river’s natural flow, and flooded vast tracts of land, displacing first peoples and their communities, irrevocably altering landscapes and habitats and nearly decimating entire salmon populations.

Wong’s (portion of the) poem includes numerous lists: “say the names” she exhorts (2), and that’s what she does, witnessing the names of tribes and peoples of the river, of birds and animals, of parts of the body, of native plants. Damage inflicted is also listed: “after the burning, the violence, the indifference, after the betrayal, the inadequacy, the mistakes, the ghosts” (36-37). Often the sheer force of the listings feels incantatory.

In addition to recognizing what’s been lost, the poem, as the title suggests, also acknowledges a debt, a sacred obligation that people owe to the river. The poets celebrate the tenacity and vitality of what continues to exist: “ what remains and resurges wave by wave, generation by generation as blood memory, cell memory, is river memory, remembering the future for the ones yet to come, who matter even if we do not know their names” (Wong, 76-77). The poem honours peoples like “the Wanapum, surrounded by nuclear waste, the army’s firing range, corporate orchards and the dam yet still renewing their relationship with the land, still river guardians” (Wong 86-87).

The poets approached the project “looking for language that represents that materiality [of the river]” (141). The resulting language is driving and often lyrical “propelled by the rhythms of ancestral land, pulsing through paddles, pick-up trucks, peculiarities of the contact zone, concrete drone of dam where it doesn’t belong” (Wong 67-68).

Wah plays the story-teller with a deceptively folksy manner, dropping Gs (breathin, sploshin’, shakin’, livin’) and calling greetings along the way (“Hello Sister Tongue hello winding mirror Klahowya… goodbye weaver woman Hello David Thompson” (4), “How are ya blue camas … Where are ya duckweed” (38) and a lot of wordplay: “so dam the consequences (30), “we can spectate the spectaculara” (33), a pun on his name, with Wahluke Slope “interpellating my name” (99-101). Early on, he also grounds the poem in a sense of the Tao, as the Columbia “starts humming its invisible Kootenay qi path breathing what exists through itself is called as is meaning ‘Going to the Water’ “ (2-3) and speaks of isness: “at the end of isness this River is the way home” (73); “how to dive through its unthought surface into the deep ‘as is’” (107/108).

He tells us that the River’s voice is “the sound our body makes when we’re sleepwalking through the abyss of our own presence in the world (80-81). Like Wong’s, Wah’s writing here is political as well as lyrical, as he describes “the irrigated grass the air heavy and mesmerized as the sprinklers click under  cloud of insecticide sprayed over the orchards while the River hums the livin’ is easy” (77-78) and, more directly, that “Many dreams drowned in this reservoir Using water this way is violent” (41).

Wah and Wong both highlight the historical and contemporary engagement of numerous Indigenous peoples with the river, its importance to them, and their guardianship of it. They incorporate Indigenous words and names, and quote Indigenous writers such as Gloria Bird, Jeannette Armstrong, and Dorothy Christianson.

Wah, a former Canadian Poet Laureate and Governor General Award winner, has identified two factors that drive his writing, racial hybridity and the local, especially the landscape of the Kootenays in southeastern BC (Canadian Encyclopedia entry). He acknowledges (in “Afterwords,” a dialogue between the writers) that, although he lived in the region at the time dams were being constructed, he was not aware of the dislocations they were effecting. The new knowledge, he says, led to his resolve to “be more of a voice for the river” (142). His other sustaining interest is also evident throughout, in the honouring of First Nations stories, as well as in lines such as “China Creek another name erased for race” (52), a mention of Tiananmen square (12), and his saying that the pikeminnow, the fish formerly called “squawfish,” “got its name back from bigotry” (104).

Although they traveled the river together, the writers “didn’t use the poems as conversation” (140). They wrote in synch but largely independent of each other, though their voices occasionally echo, as when they each describe trains’ rumblings (19) or command the reader to “listen” (29). Wah does holler across at one point “hello Rita nice to see you on the other shore not drowning but waving” (102-103)—his second reference to the Stevie Smith poem.

beholden is part of Wong’s larger multi-disciplinary collaborative artistic research project titled River Relations: A Beholder’s Share of the Columbia River. In a conversation with Fazeela Jiwa and Larissa Lai on Lemonhound, Wong says that she finds herself increasingly drawn to collaboration “because I believe we need cultures/practices that are more capable and skilled at cooperation than competition, but [also] because it’s fun.”

The fun that these two fine writers had in engaging with the Columbia is evident in the wordplay of the poetry, the enthusiastic dialogue in the Afterword, and even in the playfulness of the smiling dual-selfie author photo. But this is also serious business. The acknowledged debt, that “we are all Salmon People” beholden to the river is the strong and compelling current that carries the poem, and the reader, along the Columbia’s full length. Calls to water justice, to reclaim the river, and aid the First Nations efforts to do so, especially given the ongoing renegotiation of the Canada -U.S. Columbia River Treaty, are a potent “tug on our small spirits” (Wong 119) like the river itself.

Wah says he feels “lucky even grateful to have listened hard for the River’s voice” (131). And so are we.


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Frances Boyle is the author of two collections of poetry, Light-carved Passages (2014, BuschekBooks) and This White Nest (forthcoming fall 2019, Quattro Books) as well as a novella, Tower (2018, Fish Gotta Swim Editions). Seeking Shade, her book of short stories with The Porcupine’s Quill will be published in 2020. Frances’s fiction and poems have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies throughout North America and in the U.K. and have garnered awards including The Diana Brebner Prize, the Great Canadian Literary Hunt and the Tree Reading Series chapbook manuscript contest. She is part of the editorial team for Arc Poetry Magazine, and of the review team at Canthius. For more, please visit her website: www.francesboyle.com .

Claire FarleyComment