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By Tim Yu
Sentenced to Light offers selections from the Canadian poet Fred Wah’s collaborations with visual artists. Spanning over a decade of work, the book highlights two aspects
of Wah’s long and distinguished career. First, it shows how deeply entwined Wah’s work has always been with the visual arts—evident since his 1975 book Pictograms from the Interior of B.C. And it also displays Wah’s remarkable ability to see his writing, from book to book, as part of a single unfolding project, one in which recurring themes, allusions, and preoccupations help unify an exhilarating range of experiment.
These elements of Wah’s work are made visible by the book’s innovative structure, which samples 11 different collaborative works. While such a selection could easily appear disjointed, the book uses the works themselves as unifying threads. Pages from “Homing Pidgin,” a whimsical online collaboration in which Wah’s text appears in cartoon speech bubbles above line drawings of birds on a wire, appear not in a single group but spread out at regular intervals through the book. The same is true of lines from “Anecdotal Waters,” originally interleaved on transparencies in a book. Here the words of this “cyclical text” appear as if they were scrolling up the page, a few new lines appearing with each iteration. These creative responses to the technical challenges of reproducing visual poetry help give the book its coherence, functioning like musical motifs that orient the listener in a complex piece.
Equally impressive are those sections where visual works are reproduced more directly. In Sentenced to Light, Wah’s “ppretences”—prose-poem sentences—appear at the top and bottom of photo strips of Eric Jervaise’s panoramic Mexican urban scenes, in which Wah perceives the “green grass of identity” against the backdrop of “a cholesterol of wheels and fear.” The witty “jingo cards” created for a performance piece called “High Tea” are reproduced as if scattered loosely across the page. Each carries a large letter of the alphabet in the background, which is also the first letter of the smaller text that is superimposed: the card “C” encourages the reader to “amou- / flage / your / bavardage.”
The poems gathered here reflect Wah’s ongoing interest in diaspora, hybridity, and memory, which have been increasingly prominent in his work since his 1996 “biotext” Diamond Grill. What stands out is Wah’s ability to ground abstract concepts in local and personal contexts. In “Pop Goes the Hood,” Wah inserts quotations from urban theorists, tourist websites, and Wal-Mart promotional materials into an account of a walk through Vancouver, wondering if neighborhoods can survive their incorporation into the “global village lexicon.” The lovely aphorisms of “Anecdotal Waters” literalize the metaphors of theory—“The rhizome river rises like a desert dust storm”— alongside quotidian mentions of family: “Pauline’s lucky number is four.”
For those new to Fred Wah’s work, Sentenced to Light provides an accessible and beautifully produced introduction to a major poet. For longtime readers, it offers a reminder that Wah, as he enters the fifth decade of his career, is continually returning to origins—to memory, vision, and the body—in renewing his poetry. “The cradle,” Wah declares, “is where I want to be.”
This article first appeared in Boog City.