Fred Wah and parliamentary poetry

“The Snowflake Age”

My whole life, whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service…but I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me as I now invite you to do. God help me to make good my vow.” Queen Elizabeth II, Nelson Daily News, February 7, 1952

She said looking through the monarchy of pronouns

Her halftone face profiles the moment

On our kitchen table headlines mourn the proper
Object of our common vale of memory and becoming

Dots of quiet morning snow outside the window 724
Victoria Street then Kootenay Lake the mountain

Mist-hackled town’s companion traced as Elephant
You take on the words new news so we too

Mark our time momentarily collected public
Memory longs for its own kind of peacefulness

All day soft snow hushes the valley but
For the truck chains clanking up Stanley

The sovereign We “… seemed for a moment
As though the heartbeat of a nation stopped”

That day your other you as white as the snow
Fell over the town and drifted into the bank

Of memory just like the city bus I always needs
Another pronoun for the we is speaking middle

Voice Dominion over CKLN radio’s hourly news
Sanding in progress up Josephine all clear tonight

My Tenderfoot to King’s Scout posing who
Is the many might be the mercy of whose light

Or how to function as the subject of what long
Moment caught within each sentence

Let’s not forget – between – the words the traces
We’ll line them up for their long parade

The street’s been plowed for their cavalcade
I Me You 
            Your They My We
                                                        this rime of snowy faces


Fred Wah finds himself in a strange and what must be not overly comfortable position: he is Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Wah has no end of respect as an artist in this country (and beyond), and has the awards and recognitions to show for it. At the same time he has, both in his work and in his life, remained very much a poet centered in the small community and the backcountry—despite having lived in many cities. In particular, his beloved Kootenay mountains and valleys have remained a touchstone in his work and life, and such explorations of the “local” remain at the heart of a new chapbook, something of a mini “selected poems” put out by Toronto’s BookThug this spring.

In this same chapbook, however, one also finds “The Snowflake Age,” a poem, a back note tells us, “written at the request of the Speakers of the House of Commons and the Senate for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.”

You get the feeling that the writing of such a poem gave Wah some considerable consternation. That same back note reveals that the new chapbook was gathered for a workshop he taught entitled “How to Write a Poem for the Queen.” Perhaps he was looking for support.

I’m fascinated by the poem for a number of reasons. For starters, if I was asked to write such a poem, I’d have a hard time not writing a screed against the very idea of monarchy and any continuing connection between Canada and such an outmoded institution (or, more likely, something ironic about how what now parades around in the garb of “democracy” is no better than monarchy or any other suit slipped from the Emperor’s new wardrobe). Of course, Canada’s Poet Laureate has no such option, and Wah’s poem seems to offer no overt critique. But interestingly, it is also no fawning celebration.  

The poem is “located” in BC’s Kootenays, as it begins with an epigraph citing Queen Elizabeth’s speech upon ascending the throne in 1952, as reported in the poet’s hometown Nelson Daily News. The poem that follows interleaves aspects of the local (street addresses, the names of lakes and mountains) with reflections upon memory and, most significantly, the maze of pronouns threaded through the Queen’s speech. I find that in this way Wah does indeed embed an interesting, however ambiguous, “critique” of the ideas of sovereignty and dominion into his poem.

Part of this ambiguity relates to the doubling, in both the Queen’s address and the poem, of Queen as “subject” and the Queen addressing her “subjects.” Thus the “middle voice” referenced later in the poem as the sovereign’s pronominal games weave a space where “she” and “we” are both in some ways subjects and objects.

I also couldn’t help thinking of that place Canadians most often come across “their” Queen on a daily basis: on our money. The poem’s reference to the Queen’s “halftone face profiles” and the wonderful ambiguity of the line break where we drift “into the bank” (along with the reference to “your other you”) lead me here, whether this is intended or not. The “sovereign” as representation and representative, whose very image guarantees “value” and “wealth” (common or otherwise)—the confusion of monarchy and money is everywhere in the history of coinage. But money is also a “debt-token” (I’m getting this from David Graeber and his excellent book, Debt: the First 5000 Years): the establishing of reciprocal and co-dependent relationships, and what a sovereign “owes” her “subjects” and what her subjects “owe” her, is very much the substance of the Queen’s speech, as it is of the substance of Laureateships (the State offers the honoured position, and the poet in turn “owes” the state poems).

However that may be, the poem for me turns on just three crucial words: that “middle voice” already mentioned, and the word “Dominion” which follows. “Middle voice” reveals the doubleness of “Dominion”: it is both a place (Canada was in fact officially known as “The Dominion of Canada” until well past the middle of the 20th century) and a relationship of authority (as in “to have dominion over”—Canada as colony). Thus “dominion” is both an object (Canada) and a subject-object relation (to have dominion over Canada).

Dominion, Graeber also reveals, derives from the relationship between Romans and their slaves, with the whole of Roman law and property relations built upon the crucial foundation of slavery. The origins of the idea and justification of “property” as a “thing” a subject “possesses” are found in the need to imaging certain people as “things”—because property always involves a relationship between people (it cannot exist where there is only one).

With the questions of money and power, representation and dominion, hovering in the background of Wah’s poem, how can we help but read lines like

Is the many might be the mercy of whose light

Or how to function as the subject of what long

as openings onto great ontological and political doubts, embodied in an ambiguous and knotted syntax?

Maybe the most important “public” gesture we can make as poets—and the weight of “public” poetry is very much on Fred Wah’s mind these days—is to create spaces of undecidability—through juxtaposition and ambiguity—into which readers are invited to think. Claims upon “public space” are very much of the moment, and here is where Wah fits so nicely into these commentaries on “neighbouring zones.” Placing doubt and complexity in public—via a very “public poem” or, for that matter, via the occupation of a public square—is to head off the public certainties that drive us over social, economic, and ecological brinks. Both poetry and protestors, today, might “occupy” spatial interstices that require re-examination and offer no simple answers.

Wah’s poetry has always been about “hyphens”—racial, cultural, geographical, social spaces “Mr. In-Between” dances into in poem after poem as he explores a world where we are all complex relations. With a wink and a nod to Rimbaud, even when I is not another, “I always needs / Another.” It seems as though the Queen of England agrees—even when it is a fiction (like money), I need you as much as you need me.