rob mclennan / on Roy Kiyooka’s Pacific Windows

Roy Kiyooka’s Pacific Windows

A Photoglyphic Narrative of a Neighbourhood with Autobiographical Images to add versimilitude to one man’s Polis. Printed on Sea Gull paper and endlessly re-combined to shape a kaleidoscopic narrative: P.W. evokes Photography’s bitter-sweet, past-tense, poignance. The more The Globe & Mail touts the big brass of the multi-national Corporate World the more I want to burrow into the particulars of a ‘place’ I can see touch and smell.

The pulpt trees of the whole world lie like a monstrous Palimpsest beneath these habitual image gestures. (Roy Kiyooka, introduction, “Pacific Windows”)

Anyone fortunate enough to have The Capilano Review, series 2:3 (Fall 1990) holds the late Roy Kiyooka’s “Pacific Windows,” an issue dedicated to a single, book-length blend of photography and lyric text. The Capilano Review has produced a few single-author works as issues, including Gerry Shikatani’s First Book, 3 Gardens of Andalucía (Series 2: 39/40, Winter/Spring 2003) and Brian Fawcett’s Tristram’s Book (No. 19, 1981). Completed, according to the issue itself, “August 31, 1990 Midnight,” “Pacific Windows” begins with a quote by the late French philosopher and theologian Henry Corbin (1903-1978): “Everything that the indifferent call the past comes forth only in direct proportion to our love, itself the source of the future. One must have the courage of one’s love.” The years up to the publication of “Pacific Windows” had been highly productive for Kiyooka, with numerous exhibitions and even retrospectives of his artwork, a handful of trips to Japan, and the publication of, among other poetry titles, the manuscript edition of Wheels (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1982) and the Governor General’s Award-shortlisted Pear Tree Pomes (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1987). Going through Kiyooka’s various other works from this period, the only frustration I might have with his second volume of letters, Pacific Rim Letters (ed. Smaro Kamboureli; Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2005) is that it ends in 1985, without even a reference to the “Pacific Windows” project (that I can find).

Originally a painter, Kiyooka had long moved away from the canvas into photography and writing (predominantly poetry and letters, apart from his abandoned Tom Thomson novel). Still, after numerous books and manuscripts of writing, “Pacific Windows” appeared to be only his second large-scale photo-text series, after StoneDGloves (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1970), a piece originally exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa as a solo show, StoneDGloves: alms for soft palms, that later travelled to fourteen other cities over the course of 1970-1. As Roy Miki wrote in “Unravelling Roy Kiyooka: A Re-assessment Amidst Shifting Boundaries” from All Amazed: For Roy Kiyooka (eds. John O’Brian, Naomi Sawada and Scott Watson; Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press/Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery/Collapse, 2002):

It was in the fall of 1969 that Kiyooka was invited to design and construct a sculpture for the Canada Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka. That “contract” as a representative “Canadian” artist was ironically a rare instance when his always tentative and distant “Japanese” connection racialized him into an appealing figure for “Canada” in Japan. This trip led to several shifts that would determine the subsequent direction of his work: entering the “back country” of Japan through language and memory with his father as a travelling companion; being initiated into photography as an artistic practice, as performed in his long poem “Wheels” and his photo-text series StoneDGloves; turning away from painting, an art form through which he had built the reputation in Canadian art circles that had brought him to Expo 70; and perhaps most crucially, encountering the elements of alterity-his own “i” returning to haunt him—that would push him to compose these “athrawted” textual spaces which today harbour new geo-cultural possibilities.

“Pacific Windows” is made up of a selection of mirror-imaged photographs over forty-eight pages with a single line of lyric that runs between, mirrored as well, as the same text runs opposite, starting from either direction to end at the other, with a single sequence of photographs, mirrored. For the most part, to this point, Kiyooka’s photographic work was produced in large grids, without the use of larger, extended texts. As Sheryl Conkelton writes in her “Roy Kiyooka: ‘…The Sad and Glad Tidings of the Floating World…’,” “Kiyooka does not use a grid this time but a sequence.” The sequence, as well, being the single thread of text that weaves through the entire book, looping back. The text begins: “Like the rain-spattered pages of a Romance novel left behind on a holiday / beach: All the photographs of windows and doors, all the lintels, ledges, / unspoken captions, no longer belonged to him. He looked at each passing / face, with its own thatch, its half-shuttered windows and closely-guarded door; / he had seen that façade impress itself on his own face and had turned away[.]”Conkelton continues:

The photographs include a large array of types and styles, from symbolic to almost journalistic, from portraits to streetscapes to self-portraits in disguise, from complex reflections in windows to double exposures. The subjects include docks, highways, friends, family, pets, street concerts. Among them are other texts with significance to Kiyooka: an open comic book, the torn pages of an Artscanada magazine article on Emily Carr, a novel by Jack Kerouac, and The New American Poetry edited by Donald Allen, a book on an era of American poetry that Kiyooka was actively interested in and which had great impact on his own writing.

This sequence is a biography, complete with visual rhythms that stutter or loop back around, and with images that function as icon and metaphor and trace. The direction in this work is simpler than that of the grid works: it moves forward, and then it loops around to the place where it started. in the very first line Kiyooka names it a romance novel and talks about words that are no longer his, and using the words from the center of the book, which I have borrowed for the title of this ramble, he writes about a mother who:

…was the last link to the sad and glad tidings of the floating world… […]

Given his previous work, it’s startling, but still no surprise how intensely personal this book is, recording his immediate in such stark, unedited ways (nowhere so blatant as his nude self-portraits, seated, masked. Does the mask hide something else entirely, or is the mask there to distract from what else he shows, given freely?), mapping out Kiyooka’s Vancouver, as well as his own history. There is such a directness to “Pacific Windows” that becomes almost startling, and how deeply his own eye manages to penetrate. Truly, as Corbin wrote, the courage of one’s love.

There have been a few writers since who have explored some of the structures of Kiyooka’s work, including the photo-text of “Pacific Windows,” blending the image and poetic line, but remarkably few. One of the rare examples that stands out would be by Vancouver poet, editor and critic Roy Miki himself—not only editor of the long-awaited Pacific Windows: The Collected Poems of Roy K. Kiyooka (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1997), but a longtime friend to the productive writer, musician, artist and teacher—through his fifth trade poetry collection, Mannequin Rising (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2011), an exploration of public spaces and personal responses and responsibilities, specifically referencing most-often-beheaded store mannequins placed in mall windows as an avatar for large-scale consumerism, including Miki’s own full-colour photo-collages.

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