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by Nikki Reimer
In Ken Belford’s latest book Decompositions the biotext is in charge, shaping and routing the poetic narrative as a stream or a vein. Belford’s book is an astute politically-charged ecology of land and language that also contains a sonorous verbal music.
Belford begins with a self-referential mythology of the man whose “pen name was Ken” (6). His “misprints are not random events, but near misses;” here an “error is a starting point” (7). No glib joke of Beethoven decomposing in his grave, these are living decompositions: Belford’s text disintegrates and is chemically decomposed and recomposed. Mulch is made. The organism’s body breaks down and becomes food for other words, other phrasings. New sentences grow out of the compost, “recombinations/as a naked piece of DNA in the environment,/not passed vertically/from generation to generation,/but by means of the conjugation of plasmids/into the occupation of the new” (9). His is a poetics of respect and honour for the land and the creatures upon it, an occupation that has fallen out of fashion in the flarf vs. conceptualism arguments of the time.
Today I write poems that have high mutation rates.
I’m a new type that became more common,
an old sequence recopied upstream (9)
This man named Ken is writing a poem, charting a passageway for all creatures that might “[refuse] to adapt” (10).
There is reason to share this
world with others. Animals are
not so different after all. (10)
Here too are hints of illness narratives and labour poetry; the “paperwork seemed in order” but the I “wasn’t working” (12). The reader, encouraged, dives in to the headwaters of the Nass and listens to Belford’s careful enunciation of certain unspoken uncomfortable realities, but then the text shifts and squirms, like a sentient being with a mind of its own. Suddenly we are talking about market forces, crops, final product, policy, and “nonmarket poetry.” Do these lines speak of capitalism, or poetry, or something else altogether? I’m not even going to say neo-l… this is not a poetry of buzzwords, nor is it a poetry of the academy, and I mean that as the highest honour.
I said I’m working,
just not working for you (15).
Belford poetic refutes categorization and containment, he “give[s] away words for a living (96) and he’s “plant available” (22).
An indigenous hybrid, I’m derived
from the animals who run away
when they see you. I will say
what I think (25).
Belford has created his own lexicon, within which he makes interesting and surprising connections between a critique of capitalism, a critique of literary norms and culture, a critique of white men’s words and a loving read of the natural world. In truth, this piece was difficult for me to write because I could not find anything particularly critical to say about Decompositions: I loved it; it moved me and I’ve dog-eared all the pages.
(And note that I am typing this in an urban backyard while three cats lounge and groom. Two of the three chose to live with me, and I make no pretense to be anything more than fellow traveler.)
There is pleasure and power in Ken Belford’s words. I highly encourage you to listen.