The Wah in water

On a reading by Fred Wah

Fred Wah at North of Invention. Photo by Aldon Nielsen.

In this video, Fred Wah reads three poems from his recent selected, The False Laws of Narrative, edited by Louis Cabri, followed by six poems from Is a Door (2009), followed by an unpublished piece for Omar Khadr and, finally, a joint reading with Nicole Brossard of “If Yes Seismal,” his transcreation of Brossard’s “Si sismal.”

For me, these poems, and generally much of Wah’s poetry, spiral into and out from the third piece in the reading, “The Poem Called Syntax” (published in So Far, 1991). Just the mention of poetry and syntax in the same breath brings to mind Robin Blaser’s Syntax (1983), and his deliberate adoption of a paratactic collage of quotations, memories, reflections, and patternings of sound and sense which Charles Olson famously found lacking: “I’d trust you / anywhere with image, but / you’ve got no syntax.”

No controlling syntax is exactly the point. For Wah, like Blaser, how poems combine words, sounds and perceptions — the gathering or syntax of them — is crucial: poetry is not about imposing the narrow thinking of the standard complete sentence, or of the egotist’s diary, or of religious and political dogma. Poetry is about tapping in to a realm of sound and sense much larger than narrow frames of reference limited by individual or cultural experience; it’s about affirming the possibilities of knowledge outside and beyond what we know, and extending our knowledge through “ungrammatical” patterning.

When Wah says “We live on the edge of a lake called Echo,” several lakes come to mind; indeed, the poem refers to “all lakes.” One lake is Kootenay Lake, the 100-mile long lake in the interior of British Columbia where both Wah and I grew up, and where he has, since the 1970s, had a summer cottage. The geography of southern British Columbia is marked by several similarly long lakes in parallel valleys by which locals navigate their mental and physical treks in the province. Every spring runoff, these lakes flood.

Another lake is Blaser’s “lake of souls” (via Dante), which he said “is / probably the secret of syntax itself.” Quoting this line in “Music at the Heart of Thinking 114,” Wah comments “That’s the drawer of poetry, closed to keep the lake from flooding.” Wah envisions poetry working in a clutter of phonemes and morphemes, a chaos of linguistic signaling, waiting for connections in a “quilt of meaning.” “Just throw it into / the drawer,” Wah writes, “mess is poetry’s mass.” This does not mean poems are left uncrafted — on the contrary, Wah’s poems are full of formal patterning — they are as adroitly composed as improvised jazz from which he derives much of his poetic method — especially evident in the first two pieces in this reading, selected from his serial poem “Music at the Heart of Thinking.”

Another lake that comes to mind is the one in Michael Palmer’s serial poem “Notes for Echo Lake” (1981) — a long meditation on “micro-syntax below the order of the sentence and even … the word,” and on the relations between sign, self, names, speech, text and “a music or music beneath the hill, an ‘order of feeling.’” Palmer notes Plato’s warning against “shadows of … words cast against the wall” and his warning against song, and Wah too explores a connection to Plato’s cave allegory, imagining a “geometry of sound” high above all lakes, “something like Plato’s cave of noise.”

“The poem,” the big poem of everything, then, is a lake of sound, where we swim around, mindful of our own narrow habits of reference echoing back our limited vision. The depths of this lake where poetry works “are not a / privilege,” Blaser said, “but everybody’s.”

The lake is also syntax, the way we gather sounds and threads. Crucial to syntax, Wah shows us in the six poems from Is a Door, is that we open doors to other possibilities in sense-making, breaking down the readymade Western capitalist conclusions that deluge us, including, for Wah, stereotypic closures of race and class. At the level of phoneme, morpheme and rhythm, Wah tells us we must kick open our desires to find doors we haven’t tried. His dedicatory poem “to the dogs,” like Peter Culley’s book of that title, invokes an ongoing thread in his work (signaled by earlier titles like Loki Is Buried at Smoky Creek) — dogs as a lens for twenty-first-century human conditions. What are we barking at? How do we get ideas from barking?