The Work of Poetry and the Problem with Books
On the occasion of sending my next book of poetry to the printer...
Fast Commute found its way to the printer at the end of last week, and I found myself in that familiar territory of mild bereavement, an aimless, anchorless feeling. I’ve gone through this a few times now, and I wrote about it in an essay, first published in the Spring 2020 issue of Arc Poetry Magazine, an essay that came into view after I sent to my publisher a first complete draft of Fast Commute. I’m dusting off that essay for you today. Apologies to those of you who’ve already read it. It’s been coming back to mind lately. I welcome any thoughts that bubble up for you in response.
And I send a big thank you to everyone who keeps sending me jokes for Heather. Yes, they’re still coming in, and she’s chuckling at every one of them. Here’s her latest favourite:
How do you stop Canadian bacon from curling in the pan?
You take away their little brooms.
The Work of Poetry and the Problem with Books
Books make awkward containers for poetry. They enact a mode of boundary-making, like chain link or a land survey, when the work of poetry is rarely so contained: the next large idea finds purchase within the borders of the current one; refrains of early work live in the latest and vice versa; images rear up repeatedly, heedless of their enclosures; certain words, beings, desires live a long life in the writer. Frames and forms, like the form of the book, can be useful—a way to stand back from the thicket of urgencies, from the flocking stanzas, to look at them from a distance all together—but the writing knows and thinks otherwise.
A pall descends after I finish a manuscript. I am convinced it originates with the assumption of completeness and wholeness that makes books come about. When the poems form a whole that seems ready to publish, the work is not complete: I have merely concocted a publishable unit, and I have veered off to do that. I am taking part in thinking of the work as ended. Moving through that abject feeling involves trying to call that which sparked the poems back to me so that I can resume writing. Or it’s seeing the work off and trying to continue after that break is made. It’s a process of grief, a system of recovery, and an admission of complicity. I write to you from within that pall now.
I offer deceivingly fractional answers when people ask what I’m working on. And my answer is different every time. I have little control over it, and I have not attempted to cultivate control. I land on an aspect that happens to be front of mind, and I present that as my subject. More true would be to point to the boxes and boxes of what I’ve done so far, the notebooks and pages and clippings and research and printouts. The pamphlets and recordings and photographs and quotations and diagrams and bad copies of good art, all of which represents the walks, the staring, the away missions, the library time, the internet searches, the listening, the studying, the thinking, the sitting, the bouts of transfixity, the attempts to be transfixed. The work—not the medium, but the act—says most precisely what it’s about. It’s not singular or countable or completely representable outside its form, so the book the work becomes is partial and can only exist as such. I feel no guilt about describing it poorly. I think of it as an act of protection.
I am not innate to this continent. I lack deep ties to the places I call home. I’ve got one hundred and thirty years here at maximum; other familial lines put me at less than a century. I never lived in the places that my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents lived in, come from, or immigrated to and homesteaded, and now my families don’t either, and these days I find myself living provinces away. I have also never seen the countries I claim as my heritage. This language I speak and write in is not the language all my predecessors spoke; on one side, I am the first generation (by a nose) to have English as a first language. My project, in part, and the thing that hovers around the books I make is to figure out what I am and can be without innateness, without the languages or lands of my forebears, to see if I can grow, or at least seed, a mode of living and art-making that doesn’t extract, steal, or destroy. My project is to figure out how to (or if I can) be like the common plantain.
Our immigrant plant teachers offer a lot of different models for how not to make themselves welcome on a new continent. Garlic mustard poisons the soil so that native species will die. Tamarisk uses up all the water. Foreign invaders like loosestrife, kudzu, and cheat grass have the colonizing habit of taking over others’ homes and growing without regard to limits. But Plantain is not like that. Its strategy was to be useful, to fit into small places, to coexist with others around the dooryard, to heal wounds. Plantain is so prevalent, so well integrated, that we think of it as native. It has earned the name bestowed by botanists for plants that have become our own. Plantain is not indigenous but “naturalized.”
Plant ecologist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer uses the common plantain, Plantago major, or White Man’s Footstep, to articulate the development of rootedness that doesn’t supplant. She elaborates:
In spring it makes a good pot of greens, before summer heat turns the leaves tough. The people became glad for its constant presence when they learned that the leaves, when they are rolled or chewed to a poultice, make a fine first aid for cuts, burns, and especially insect bites. Every part of the plant is useful. Those tiny seeds are good medicine for digestion. The leaves can halt bleeding right away and heal wounds without infection. . . . [White Man’s Footstep is] a foreigner, an immigrant, but after five hundred years of living as a good neighbor, people forget that kind of thing.
Quoting Anishinaabe Elder Eddie Benton-Banai’s telling of the Original Instructions given to Nanabozho by the Creator, Kimmerer compares this process of “naturalization” to the task of walking “in such a way ‘that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth.’” Kimmerer explains that for this continent of immigrants,
Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.
The systems of care that a long relationship with a place create are not entrenched in the non-Indigenous human community yet. Tim Lilburn, in his book of essays The Larger Conversation, argues that they won’t ever be, that a “spirit of conquest and superiority, together with an eristic inclination in thought and a nervous momentum brought to it by the pneuma of capitalism” presents too heavy a weight to lift off this continent. Ravenous systems of profit and extraction, systems in which books live, make any attempt to “greet” the earth through the medium of published poetry also potentially damaging. It’s often hard to know, and even hard to form the words to ask, about the processes of production and dissemination, about the material effects of publishing. In fact, books are such an entrenched technology that we seem to only understand them in terms of what’s written in them: how books benefit us, how they enrich our culture, and how their use is an indication of a society’s health.
To understand publishing as a craft, as some small publishers do, with involvement in all steps of the process, can help us make each step in the production of books a greeting to the earth, which includes appreciation for the materials books use. And to learn about papermaking, binding, and distribution might engender an entrenched attentiveness that helps change how books live in the world. And if it’s the case, as I stated above, that the whole of the poetic process can’t, by its nature, live on the page, that the poetry written is one by-product of a larger ecology of thinking, singing, and being, maybe a reimagining of form itself, grounded within systems of care, is what’s most urgently needed.
Poems can position themselves precisely against the senseless gobbling and oppressive structures that guide colonial societies. They might even function as antidote. “Poetry cannot do this efficiently,” Lilburn says, and “it inevitably will appear pathetic as it tries, but it is poetry’s unforced, uncalculated nature to exercise rescuing, theurgic power.” That these attempts at rescue land within the marketplace might be part of the “pathetic” impression Lilburn mentions, but it also makes it all the more important for the work—not the book, but the work—of the poet to live robustly outside the housing of its by-products.
river pointing to this bend to this sentience where I live on Treaty 6 how to point with lips with words to hear this water to listen to these songs with ears to find this land with thinking to acknowledge its genius feeling to write without writing to inhabit and understand the pressing obligations that we have to our relations to one another here to this to now How does this land hear How might deixis point writers and readers continually to this land this here that holds us
Christine Stewart’s Treaty 6 Deixis is one example of a book of poetry whose work exists very clearly in a place outside the commodity of the book. Her writing is engaged in learning and embodying a deeper relation with here—specifically, kisiskâciwani-sìpiy, the North Saskatchewan River, near amiskowacìyowâskahikan, Edmonton, in Treaty 6 territory—in order to help properly understand and assume obligations to all the original inhabitants. She writes, in “Treaty 6,” a prose piece that ends her book, how we are asked to learn the treaty properly, “not as it was later interpreted by the Crown,” but
That the nations-to-nation treaty proposed by the nations of the area with the Crown was (and still is) based on thousands of years of treaties that have existed between nations and that those human-to-human treaties are founded on the original treaties that exist between the human and the non-human or more-than-human world
Those treaties, in the words of Nêhiyaw Elder Bob Cardinal, are based on
agreements of reciprocation that were made between humans and animals between humans and air between humans and water humans and plants humans and rocks For Elder Cardinal these original treaties are the basis for the survival of all life on this planet
Deixis points; it is language that points: here, now, this, there, that. These words form the basic shape of Stewart’s book, and they start by pointing explicitly outside of the book to the place where the speaker writes and lives, the place to which she has obligations, and the place where she is “asked to be attentive asked to be aware of what is taken and asked to give back to give back.”
To start into Treaty 6 Deixis is to be awash in unknowing, in dim vision, in an inability to say what’s around or to sense fully. This echoes well Lilburn’s description, in his introduction to The Larger Conversation, of the “colonial subject” moving “in a sort of daze in the place you call home.” Stewart’s book approximates this daze and this distance—this “yearning for the ground where one stands,” as Lilburn describes it—and her lines reach and ask questions: “This valley . . . Those rocks like that . . . This river . . . How to be here . . . To be here like that.” The English language becomes conspicuous and clearly a hindrance, but it must act as the ill-equipped starting point, to learn to come to “The present in each case in which we chose to ignore / And our bodies became that ignorance and by extension became / this violence.” Treaty 6 Deixis repositions language so as to not perpetuate that “violence” or covering over; instead, it proceeds with care for the things around it, each step a greeting, and the result is a display of a language in its infancy in this new place, pointing at the life it senses, filled with desire, knowing what’s wanted, and yet lacking expressive fullness.
preparations must be undertaken
in mouths in waiting
in waiting in mouths waiting very much and very well we do
want this asking
admission to join gently in this
As the poem proceeds, words grow uncannily specific without losing their vagueness. And they become inadequate to anything outside the place from which the speaker speaks. The meaning of the words would be different if they were spoken elsewhere. In that way, the book is intrinsic to and inseparable from its place. And how to be in one’s place becomes an urgency, a responsibility, and a necessity in the pursuit of full being and good utterance. Lilburn calls this urgency
a serious matter: placeless, our identity is never fully developed and our anger, thus unnamed, is rampant, diffused. Without a relationship to land and the respect and ethical regard that come from relationship, we are dangerous and savage to land, as well as bereft within, nameless, unhoused. Our incompleteness makes us destructive, ravenously, disproportionately, madly, ungovernably hungry, afflicted with a hunger that may be a sort of uncomprehended mourning. This behaviour is met by love for place, by being entered by the accommodating beauty or idiosyncratic strangeness of that river, that hill or neighbourhood or garden, met by this sweet, comprehending erotic passivity. This violence to land is met by the self enlarged by affection and gratitude for particular places, for places that seem to look at us and take us in.
Books make awkward containers for poetry. My next one is trying to say something about the unrestrained hunger Lilburn describes above, and how the destruction that results can yield a cycle of yet more “uncomprehended mourning,” more distance, more boundless, unthinking obliteration. But this is only, can only be, an incomplete description of the work, and the book only a partial portrayal. The work flourishes elsewhere, and the seeds of the next project are sprinkled through that book’s pages. Writing is an ecosystem in this way. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer describes the capacity to give thanks as a distinctly human gift. The work of poetry is helping me learn this language of gratitude.
 Robin Wall Kimmerer, from “In the Footsteps of Nanabozho: Becoming Indigenous to Place,” in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013, page 214.
 Kimmerer, 214.
 Kimmerer, 206.
 Kimmerer, 214.
 Tim Lilburn, from “Poetry as Pneumatic Force,” in The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2017, page 109.
 Lilburn, 114.
 Christine Stewart, from Treaty 6 Deixis. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2018, page 119.
 Stewart, 124.
 Stewart, 124.
 Stewart, 126.
 Lilburn, The Larger Conversation, page x.
 Lilburn, from “The Ethical Significance of the Human Relationship to Place,” in The Larger Conversation, page 16.
 Stewart, 4, 5, and 10.
 Stewart, 78.
 Stewart, 111.
 Lilburn, 16.
Thank you for this lovely essay, Laurie. It inspired my response in the somewhat-rambling post here: https://feudal.substack.com/p/urban-animal?justPublished=true I look forward to reading your book!
Thank you for drawing my attention to the existence of Treaty Six Deixis -- I've ordered it from my local indie bookseller. This was a lovely essay.