This article was originally published in Issue 3.16 (Winter 2012)
Is Ken Belford’s poetry pastoral? asks Clint Burnham
I have a thing about eco-poetics. For a long time, I thought it sucked, I thought it was just another trendy way to update old stuff (we used to call it nature poetry, which is what we hated, even though I always liked John Clare, like everybody else) – and I do still think there’s something problematic about eco-poetry. Example: a few years ago Rob Budde wrote about Ken Belford’s work in The Globe and Mail. Now, I think Belford’s work is very interesting, I was blown away when I first heard him read a few years ago in Ottawa, the attention to detail in the land, but also the class and race politics he brings in there – my soundbyte for a while was that his work was akin to that of Christopher Dewdney in the 1970s and 80s, the almost magic realist attention to animals and creatures. But I think Budde is wrong to think that this work is not pastoral, or, at least, is a misreading of what the pastoral is.
This is what Budde actually says: “The ‘story’ of nature is not in Belford’s poems — there are glimpses, nuances, discourses, collisions, but no romance and no pastoral gasp at the beauty of it all.” So, just quickly – because I do want to talk more specifically about Belford’s amazing poem in this issue of TCR – I don’t think the “pastoral” can be reduced to anodyne gasps “at the beauty of it all.” To be sure, there are lots of bad poems that do that kind of work, but – and this is an argument I pursue in my KSW book, writing about the work of Lisa Robertson and Peter Culley – the pastoral can also be said to be a tradition of poetry that confronts the despoliation or seizure of land by power, and perhaps even by colonial power, both through direct political statements as we see in Virgil (but also in Robertson), or in the minute descriptions as we see in Clare (and also in Belford).
“Potential,” Belford’s poem in the “ecologies” issue of The Capilano Review (pages 141 to 147) is a poem about the fate of life – of bare life, of the “unemployable,” under the regime of academic discourses which render both nature and the creaturely little more than “faithful copies,” “monologue[s] of landscape,” “grown in the uniform stands/and feed lots of the institution.” But the poem is also conflicted, the speaker says he is “still not submissive to/the local but I’m agreeable/to potential” and declares “I’m resistant –/an outsider no matter where I live.” So these contradictions are interesting, because I think there’s a desire to read Belford’s poems as about him, his story, his biography, the class history of an “unemployable” in Northern British Columbia. But the very beginning lines of the poem work against that naïve reading:
In my opening pages, the identity
of the characters is contested as
a forgery of imagery bound up
with the claims and dispositions
of country. It seems in order
to sustain power in all this,
the city upholds an illusion of
authority over the north, so that
the influential with the most is
a problem to which I return.
Is Belford here anticipating – if not contesting – the very claims I am making about “the identity/of the characters”? Perhaps, but the poem will go on to appropriate the language of neoliberal university discourses, the final page, in particular, an orgy of “Academics are interested in/the people who live in the area,” and “I heard about this in the gift shop,” and “I’d like to thank the following people/for the commercial use of images.” Now, the (forged?) image of Belford in a gift shop is truly frightening – again, it does not accord with the macho, rural-proletariat persona that a lazy reader might believe in. Rather, the poem inhabits the jargon of today’s corporate or academic language as a way to force its way out again.
But maybe he’s doing something with that language, too. For if the poem begins and ends in a meta sort of way, there’s this specificity again midway through, when he’s comparing fruit ripening to “the excitable/tissues of language,” and the poem asserts: “I think what it is, is, glume varies.” Now, maybe you didn’t have to go to the dictionary, thinking this was just some old spelling of “gloom,” an update of Stevens’ “gloaming,” but I did, and I found out that the word means husk, or “a membraneous bract surrounding the spikelet of grasses or the florets of sedges.” (You can find some pictures of glumes on BC grasses here.) So this incredibly specific reference to the fuzzy edges of budding grasses, in Belford’s poem then grounds a certain critique of, again, those “feed lots of the institution,” which suggests as much that the academy is a feedlot for fattening up our citizenry. The parallel discourses of autobiography, textuality, education, and natural grasslands are finally, as Belford writes on the last page of the poem, “too difficult to translate,” so I’ll stop translating.