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By Camille Martin
“I transgressed the imagined
and resisted the ordered metaphors
- from Decompositions
For most of his life, Ken Belford has lived in the rural and wilderness areas of the Nass Valley in northern British Columbia. In his latest book of poetry, Decompositions, his meditations on humans and nature have entered a new breadth of poetic maturity and ecological wisdom that comes from years of sustaining himself from the land and being attentive to the “intelligence of nature” (Belford).
His poetry is down-to-earth, conversational. But Belford’s self-description as an autodidact—poetically or otherwise—should not be construed as a marker of unsophistication. Here is an ecologically-minded poet whose complex thought arises not only from scientific knowledge of ecosystems, geology, microbiology, and genetics, but also—and more importantly—from a lifetime of observing and meditating on the intricate connections between land and its inhabitants. And in Decompositions, Belford voices his seasoned understanding of the natural world and the human pressures that transform it. It’s poetry that has been decades in the ripening: rooted in long experience, enlightened by keen awareness, and expressed with an original and quietly compelling poetic sensibility.
I’m fascinated by the uniqueness of Belford’s poetic voice in comparison to that of many contemporary nature poets. And I think it’s important to understand what sets his work apart because of a set of expectations that readers (including myself) may bring to nature poetry and its more current rubric, eco-poetry. So first: what his approach to nature poetry is not.
Nature poetry can dazzle with lavish description and linguistic pyrotechnics, but in contrast to poets who offer the reader an epiphany of place recognition, Belford asks,
says good writing conveys
a strong sense of place?
Belford is wary of the type of “possessive poem” that attempts to capture its object through descriptive details:
The aggressive impulses of
the lyric load the details
of the story with what seems
to be a post-dating hangover.
Tongue in cheek, Belford suggests that, perhaps counter-intuitively, a poetics of descriptive infatuation might have a numbing effect as one becomes inebriated with the language that tries more to “capture” the lover than to explore and cultivate a mutual partnership.
Also, some nature poets are inclined to forewarn and prescribe, but for Belford,
The apparent attempts at
moral instruction from poets
who do not own their own
lives makes me think that about
is control, which is why I’m
not convenient, and more
temporary, why I long to be
idle and purposely dormant,
and accelerate from
those empty places country
does not allow escape from.
Inconvenient indeed, if what a reader seeks is use-value to adorn an ideological or political banner. Belford’s poetry resists the easy sound byte and knee-jerk emotions about nature that may find themselves subservient to causes.
And nature poetry can lament lost Arcadias. But Belford renounces idyllic worlds that never existed anyway:
It’s best to blink and learn to forget
if it’s arcadia or aecidia, best to be
happy, and forget the topological terms
of day, the derivatives of night, and
let the pre-existing ideal slip your mind
and be bygone, and accommodate
the misfit. Images are nomadic.
In short, Belford isn’t so much interested in generating a sense of wonder about nature, in offering artificially-imaged nature as “a lifestyle Photoshop retouches,” or in engendering a feeling of melancholy or moral outrage about ecological disruption. This is not eco-poetry with an agenda. Belford’s more concerned with exploring with open mind the entanglements of nature (wild or channelled) and human perception, language (including poetic language) and social interactions. And in these explorations, “misfits” are not anomalies, and images—being the product of brains whose plasticity mirrors nature’s own continual shiftings—are not stable.
“Inter-connectedness” has become an ecological cliché, a vague truism for the web of dependence linking natural phenomena. As Belford questions his relation to his natural surroundings, he avoids such easy sentiments (which might arise from an “about” branch of nature poetry) by meditating on processes of evolution and genetics:
[T]he type of contact I lived was not
a food, or family, or animal contact route,
but evolved from a common ancestor.
His relation to nature doesn’t so much resemble the unthinking and likely accidental “contact route” followed by the spread of pathogens. It’s more like a feeling of relatedness to other beings through the genetic links of common ancestry. He describes his genes as having descended from
an old sequence recopied upstream
in a new strand that follows flooding
and I’m good at attaching to surfaces.
His arrival from distant ancestors is a traversal of nature in time that recognizes his (literal) inter-relatedness with all beings by virtue of his descent downstream, “follow[ing] flooding,” from common ancestors. Although this kind of genetic transmission is “vertical” in the biological sense of descent from parent to offspring, Belford emphasizes the horizontal links with other beings, forged by common ancestry. He views distant cousins on the tree of life as important a part of his family as great grandparents.
He also portrays his existence in the world in horizontal terms: he “attach[es] to surfaces” and
integrat[es] in through 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.
The metaphors of horizontal and vertical genetics offer a distinction that is important to Belford’s outlook. Vertical genetic transfer represents the line of ancestry from which each living being has descended. An emphasis on the vertical thus prioritizes one’s own familial lineage, as opposed to recognizing one’s relatedness to species that branched off from our own line. The image of verticality makes it easier to conceptualize homo sapiens as having a unique and special rank at the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree.
By contrast, Belford likens his being within nature to horizontal genetic transfer (as in the conjugation of plasmids), which involves the passing of genetic material from one cell to another. The receiving cell is not considered to be the offspring of the donating cell though this type of transfer can be a mechanism of evolution.
Thus Belford envisions neither himself as a child of nature nor nature as his Garden of Eden. Instead, he sees himself and his natural environment as interacting systems of lateral exchange and mutation. And this view allows him to recognize that the human mind is only one instance of intelligence in nature, which has endowed other beings with their own native intellect in negotiating their worlds:
A wolf decided to
walk with me. They keep lists.
C is for company. You go up and
north at the same time. Everything
that lives acts in a particular way
and has a reason to live.
As a dweller in the wilderness who has seen the encroachment of loggers and farmers, Belford writes in many poems in Decompositions about the disruption of ecosystems and the ensuing ill effects on nature and humans, especially the poor: deforestation, the decline of diversity, the invasion of non-native species, and the spread of pathogens (“the fevers that go with harm” and that disproportionately affect the poor). The latter is both a literal problem and an analogy for economic forces that pave the way for the dissemination of disease and, ironically, enough, for the
good roads [that] bring
health care in because the
villages are going to need it.
In the midst of the disturbed soil and leaching toxins that degrade wilderness and disrupt ecosystems, Belford reflects on the ecological philosophy that he embraces, for he’s
sympathetic to trans-species, overgrown
gardens, and fragmentation and loss, and
of the conflicts and pathways toward coexistence.
I almost glossed over the word “trans-species” but learned that the term refers to an environmental outlook developed by Gay Bradshaw that
re-embeds humans within the larger matrix
of the animal kingdom by erasing the “and”
between humans and animals that has been
used to demarcate and reinforce the false
notion that humans are substantively
different cognitively and emotionally from
other species. (qtd. in Marino)
In Belford’s reference to trans-species, I’m again reminded of his emphasis on the horizontal exchange of genetic material. Vertical descent can suggest differentiation among species, notwithstanding the common ancestors that unite humans to every other living being. But horizontal cellular exchange implies, in the here and now, a non-hierarchical stance in relation to other beings and, indeed, the topology and matter of the land.
Belford’s turning away from the vertical “sequence of ancestors” is also consonant with his more general “shifting trust of order’s / single-file chain of incidents”: He’s no writer of “orderly passages” but of thoughts that “deviat[e] from the expected.”
I admire and respect Belford’s Decompositions because of its groundedness in science and long experience. And these tell him that inherent in biological and geological processes are constant shifts among order, chaos, growth, and decay:
is weather, the mind is a wetland,
instincts come and go, responses
evolve, and signals mix.
And it also reminds him that like his poems, to which he attributes “high mutation rates,” his own life is part of nature’s ongoing process:
I’m forever in potential,
always wandering around, getting to
the top, and rolling down the other side.
I’ll give Belford a long last word by quoting a poem, one of my favourites, from Decompositions:
I bit into a persimmon and the weather
on the other side of town seemed murky
and sour, not because it was still and
without explanation, but a skip. It’s
just what happens. After all, nothing
is restricted to straight lines, and
the reflective surface of the page is
sometimes cool and cold, or warm and hot.
And there, by the edge of a weary pond,
smelled the ba and bit and breath of life,
for the earth does breathe, and flicked
a match and smoked in the breathing place
where phenomena are not perception,
but drag one weary foot after another.
And in the fetid air, inhaled and exhaled,
and stayed a while, for something like
a happy hour in the brush, for a puff
of air and a puff of smoke and a rest
in the steam and stench of suggestion.
Belford, Ken. “de comp.” Message to te author. 10 July 2011. E-mail.
Marino, Lori. “A Trans-Species Perspective on Nature.” In On the Human: A Project of the National Humanities Center. http://onthehuman.org/2010/11/trans-species-perspective/
This review first appeared on Camille Martin’s blog on July 11, 2011.