Fred Wah’s So Far
Saturday, August 1/87
I talk to myself this morning, on the long drive up the Columbia valley. I notice that, that I talk to myself more than to others. I say that to myself, that and where we’re going, the fresh of the morning, the truck packed with hiking gear, that, and that. Pauline and I meet the others at the Skookumchuk Café for the long drive up the gravel logging road valleys, people eyes ahead faces set on the next step, a chopper lift up to 8,000 ft. in the Rockies east of Invermere. But the weather socks in during the day so after I wrap the truck in chickenwire, mezmerize alone, lean on a log long hours but no chopper, unwrap the car and spend the night there, strewn w/ cloud (I hope stars).
This afternoon I unzipped the pocket of my pack and found this journal, left or lost since last summer’s hiking camp in Anemone Pass in the northern Selkirks. In it I find this poem I wrote in response to Pat Lifely’s fall from a cliff during the first days of the camp.
A Garnet for Pat Lifely
Here’s a small encrusted stone for your cairn,
home for you.
this wine-red nipple of the January mind
your death fell from
every day we face them
those rock bluffs across the valley, a pine. (“Limestone Lakes Utaniki”)
There has been much written on Vancouver poet Fred Wah’s exploration of form through the “bio-texts” of his Governor General’s Award-winning Waiting for Saskatchewan (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1985; 2004) or his Diamond Grill (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 1996; 2006), and yet, my favourite of his collections to date has to be So Far (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1991). The mélange of poems in So Far also exist in a blend of forms, and include a couple of examples of his “utaniki,” an Anglicized version of a Japanese form that combines prose with poetry. For reasons I haven’t attempted to explore prior to this, So Far is the work of Fred Wah’s that I’ve most often returned to, influencing, among other things, my own occasional explorations around “utaniki.” Wah once wrote about being originally encouraged by bpNichol to attempt “utaniki,” but of course, I can’t remember where I actually read such, having simply filed the information away in the back of my memory. In an interview conducted by Ashok Mathur for filling Station magazine (reprinted in Wah’s Faking It: Poetics & Hybridity, NeWest Press/writer-as-critic, 2000), Wah mentions Nichol’s influence:
Mathur: Diamond Grill has been touted not only as your first full-length published prose work, but as a departure from your earlier, so-called language-centred, poetry. What is your response to such readings?
Wah: Well, that’s true, isn’t it? The writing, as prose, was actually spurred along by bpNichol challenging me to open up to other stylistic possibilities, particularly prose, which I had been intimidated by, didn’t trust, I suppose, its master position. On the other hand, the prose is also a continuation of the prose poem that started germinating for me as far back as Breathin’ My Name With a Sigh (1981).
Part of what I have long appreciated from Wah’s work is his exploration of and experimentation with blending prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction, as well as family history, some of which falls into what he termed as “bio-text.” His Diamond Grill and Waiting for Saskatchewan might be the best examples of his book-length explorations of blending and bending forms into cohesive units, but there’s something about the rough-sketch variety in So Far that has always struck, from the journal-poems of his “utaniki,” and other poems that lean heavier on certain formal sides, whether as short lyric, a variety of prose poems, fragmented lyric, lyric wordplay, and even hiking and camping poems. So Far also includes poems such as “Translating Translating Appollinaire” (“vis-à-vis bp”), “Writing the Translating,” “What does Qu’Appelle mean?” and “Dead in My Tracks: Wildcat Creek Utaniki,” that includes “My Borders are Altitude // and silent [.]”
The Water, The Fish
23rd of January after the full moon fish
frozen new year cheeks all day salmon spawn
radio yak yak on the silted creeks
thawing Slocan River and Grohmann’s mouth iced all winter long
and there was Nancy from Nemo across the street
know my half-life this year turn-around now to get home
with all of it, the map intact
Perhaps it is for the variety that exists in this book, while still managing a coherent collection of poems; perhaps it is through the title, suggesting a continuation of his work, and yet, suggesting the differences that were still to come. Perhaps it is simply for the humanity of Wah’s writing that really comes through this work, something prevalent in so much of his writing, with the added layers of his meditative sketches, writing around the groundings of family, language, history and ecology. Perhaps, simply for the fact that so many of his poetry collections over the past twenty-plus years have been constructed as book-length structures makes, at least for me, this small collection stand out as something different. Do I need to know exactly why?
Not this is what you see but this is what you say. You seeing. This trip a kind of samskara to scare out the europe ghosts. It’s as close as you’ve come to the old, old world – dead, dead europe. But you say it simplex, just to yourself. That’s no good for these similes, one, then many. The world needs to be talked to, sung to. Some blind thing or poet. Some word rivering alongside. (“Hermes Poems”)
Permission granted by the author Fred Wah for the use of these selections from his work.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com