By Gregory Betts
You know, language doesn’t just lay a mask over reality, but actively changes our experience of it. Reality is recorded in words, and it too swiftly disappears into only a linguistic trace. They say history is written by the victors, but, closer to the truth, history is written in words. Political speechwriters and poets compete for this power to, if not legislate the world, then to shift the meaning of its memory, its legislation (a word, that in its root, means ‘to propose’ — everything is contingent, soiled).
As the In the Soil festival comes around again, we are asked to think about the shifting culture that stems from Niagara, this place, and its particular reality. I offer as a kind of evidence four poems that re-imagine the performance of language in the world, the shift in meaning words can capture and create. These poets will all be reading in St. Catharines this month (see the details below).
Let’s start with Moez Surani whose poem presents a deceptively simple list of the names of military operations conducted by member states of the United Nations in the year 1979 alone. The UN was envisioned as a means to end violent conflict on earth, and the names Surani lists highlights the failure to realize its vainest ambitions.
Elf One (European Liaison Force One)
Priha 13 [Blossom 13]
Like a tinderbox lit by the throw of a dice, the storm of war still blossoms in a global shakedown, 1979. The language that shapes and records these outbursts of violence are like cyclones uprooting the truth. Nothing is true, every war is permitted
While Surani collects the grotesque spectacle of the names that states use to justify their violence, Sarah Pinder writes the intimate moment of waking up into the need to reach someone, the elusive Other.
Excerpt from Common Place
Awake in the green room,
flat out on the bedsprings,
dried milkweed tacked
to the wall, refusing any
emergency before slipping
keys in mail slots.
The plasticity of early winter,
back to the river, face to the river,
side of my body to the river,
on my way to you.
The river is the dream she wakes from, perhaps the exhausting dream of moving, or the sign of winter’s opening up and melting into a new possibility for reality. This poem is a vivid moment of quiet hope against hope.
Phoebe Wang, meanwhile, also captures a shift, a psychological movement between the generations caused by immigration and the gradual settlement in Canada. She notes how our national narratives underplay the risk and fear felt by individuals that such profound moments of disruption instill.
The Same Old Story (from Admission Requirements, 2017)
Where did it come from, this fantasy
of shaping a life the way an axe
splits white pine into tinder?
Some of us were told a single story,
others, many. I thought it romantic,
those filles du roi, their trunks packed
for a life of linen sheets, hemmed by terror.
We’ve all heard about those people
who came here with nothing, well,
my mother was an unwanted
daughter too. I’ve been told on countless
occasions about my dad digging his way out
of shoulder-high snow in Waterloo,
shuttling cheese pizzas to University Avenue.
Did it drive them mad to listen
to the bitter wind kicking at the door again?
Not them – but us, when we first
came here and heard that howling,
that danger we’ve since forgotten.
This is a reversal of the pathetic fallacy: the weather remains constant, but the change in consciousness alters what it means. Of course, a change in consciousness also alters how we behave, and how we behave, as we in the anthropocene (humans unwriting existence on earth) are increasingly aware, changes even the weather.
Christopher Dewdney’s poem feels like a gloss on the others, as the dream and the body and the mind create a world that is complete but offset from anything approximating objective reality.
Poem Using Lines Spoken By Suzanne
What you feel as your body
is only a dream. The mind also
is a slave. You are asleep.
You are asleep, what you feel
as your mind is only a dream. The
dream also, is only a slave.
You are a dream, what you feel
as your slave is only a mind.
The body also is a mind. You
in the gentle theft of time. (time)
Time, here, is the only constant. It is master, it is thief. Everything else is tinged by the unreality of fantasy, subconscious projections that move in the cinema of the present.
Be present at this lovely event: Borderblur Reading Series, Friday 28 April 2017, 7:30-9:30 pm: Moez Surani, Sarah Pinder, Phoebe Wang, Christopher Dewdney. Full details will be here: http://www.inthesoil.on.ca