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Reviewed by Maureen Scott Harris
Trying to summarize Decompositions (Ken Belford’s sixth book) or define its central position is not only contrary to what I think its intention is, but rather like dancing with a Zen koan. Consider the title with its taking apart that contains a building up (not a bad description of a process that repeats throughout the book)—_decompositions…compositions…positions…posit…_ then turn it around …posit…positions… compositions…decompositions. Are you dizzy yet?
When I asked Belford if the book had begun as a project, he replied “I think I can say more of a yes to this than a no.” I imagine he may have started with the thought: What if I wrote about my life in terms of the life of a vascular plant—or about the breakdown of community in the language of forest succession? (“I wanted to talk about the relationship / between vascular language and the succession / to woodland thinking.”) Or, perhaps, how the land might, if it could, write me? Decompositions mines terminologies to exhaustion. Poem by poem, “Languages grind / against one another beneath the surface”, vocabularies cascade, generating authority then confusion, while manifesting something like the shifting plenitude of the world. Decomposition is a governing process of both land and human attempts to spell it out, and we mistake ourselves thinking we can ever say the whole story. Another story is always arising.
Ken Belford’s book is exorbitant despite its adherence to largely unornamented language and an apparently simple form. With a few exceptions, each untitled poem consists of direct statements, reminiscent of the dramatic monologue. But just who is speaking and what is said is often unclear. Here’s a complete, and pretty straightforward, poem:
There are mountains, hills,
complexities and plateaus,
but the turning point I mean
was when I was no longer
restricted by landforms, when
I understood the uncertainty
of calculations and the soil and
water loss out on the plateau.
In different morphopoetic regions,
entropy can be given as follows—
the watershed divides, determining
borders, and I write topology indices
of elongated lowland lines, including
mean gullies, but I do not gather
skeletons because the land is not empty.
Just what is the story here—geography or poetics? The address is to the reader, but who is this “I” (river, poet, surveyor tracing borders) and what is that turning point turning from?
How words can empty themselves and dissolve the ground we stand on is part of what I experience reading these poems. The deaths of explanation and the dream of complete knowledge are at work here. Belford mimics the ongoing processes of the biosphere, insisting we recognize we exist within those processes, our identities also provisional and changing.
Yet at the same time that a kind of repeated dissolving is going on, an autobiography of sorts (and a poetics) seem to be unfolding. What a daring and necessary enterprise—to write one’s life in terms of the land and its ongoingness. Breaking down the borders between discourses and processes, we glimpse an astonishing interchangeability, the mingling and blending of a human life with the life of the land, the two going on in concert. A new story arising from the old ones.
Decompositions does require a large capacity for negative capability in the reader—let go of any irritated reaching after facts and understanding and relax into the movements of these poems. In his final lines, the poet instructs us, now we’ve reached the end, on how to receive them: “leave words, and / allow these poems to bend and / cause to be and come apart again.“
hypoderm: notes to myself is Weyman Chan’s third book. It began, he told me, with his intent “to speak from a place of equality with all things,” and from that stance what he saw was “impending destruction.” The view is bleak; despair lurks, the ache of mortality deepened by the potential death of the planet.
A science fiction-like atmosphere shadows much of hypoderm, dreamlike, vaguely threatening. The startling beauty and horror of a burning book in snow is emblematic: “But it, the book, was smouldering: its pages / were vortices on fire from the inside / its blue cover keeping a lid on the text / that you turn away from to be saved” (“burning”). Moments of sensory pleasure offset the heat: “So I walked, and walked along the long life river of my childhood, / the robin’s nonbeinged minor strings lifted across my eye level. / Birdsong’s hand-empty, as always, falls with the dew” (“go and get milk”).
The hypoderm is the layer of skin beneath the epiderm (remember those diagrams in your health textbook?), the site of both inoculation and infection. The word invokes “hypodermic,” a tool that punctures the skin’s surface. What gets under our skins is, idiomatically, an irritant, something that won’t be ignored. Among things that get under Chan’s skin are genocides: “Wise nations were nailed / under pox and flannel” (“my body lies over the ocean”); environmental devastation: “I’ve told you to stop douching me in motor oil and ragging out my oceans” (“earth speaks”); and human arrogance: “what monster taught Adam / to see a bird and say the word” (“san francisco blues”). If Chan’s hope in facing these evils was to inoculate himself against them, that hope is not fulfilled. Daily life and domestic relations offer the uncertain antidote, the self stitched together by memory and love: “The sliding shoulder / of my daughter at the bus stop / pieces us together. She says, / look, two people, one shadow!” (“starry morning”)
Chan’s poems vary in shape: ordinary free verse mixed with moments of rhyme, lines staggered across the page, tercets, prose poems, short lines, long lines, right-justified lines, and combinations of these practices. The “I” is sometimes there directly, at other times an impersonal presence, absorbing or observing what unfolds. At still others, the “I” tells stories and once even speaks as the Earth. The tone varies, too, from bitter irony (occasionally distancing this reader) to delight and tenderness.
hypoderm: notes to myself is thickened with two vocabularies foreign to me: popular culture references, especially to film and television, abound, and so do terms (and processes) from science. Though I can’t read these “languages” precisely, I can see they weave a backdrop of contemporary fears and longings: deadly machines, conspiracies, industrial disasters, epic battles, viruses and plagues, yearnings for salvation, dreams of home. I trust Chan’s accuracy here because of his moving meditations on his father and his daughters.
Individual poems often proceed by an energetic piling of image on image—free association hijinks that aren’t always successful. When images don’t link to feeling, they clot, leaving a reader bewildered. Chan has stated (as a guest on a blog): “Every writer must come to terms with their own inner language—and it takes time to learn how to use it to best effect.” Here it sometimes feels as if he hasn’t completely mastered the image/feeling resonance of his inner language.
But it’s exciting to read Weyman Chan as he expands his poetry’s reach—not abandoning earlier themes of family and immigrant experience—with evident skill, energy, and passion.
Both Decompositions and hypoderm rise from great contemporary preoccupations: our relationship to the Earth and her other inhabitants (not excluding other people); and our responsibility for the degradation of that relationship and of the Earth. Both books practice a poetics of disorientation, entangling the readers in language and/or images that elude or dissolve meaning, discomfiting and challenging us. Both demand rereading, time, a good dictionary—and then, as Belford suggests, our letting go.
My thanks to both poets for email conversations about their work.
This review first appeared in The Goose (Fall, 2010).