Signifier Desire

  • Clint Burnham
    The Only Poetry That Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing. Arsenal Pulp Press
Reviewed by Gregory Betts

The Only Poetry That Matters is the first scholarly book on the Kootenay School of Writing (KSW), the longest running avant-garde literary collective in Canada’s history. It is an important addition to a field in which critics have been surprisingly reserved; the field at present includes only a small number of anthologies and essays and one special issue of a journal. There is still very much to say about the KSW. This book jumps without reservation into its topic, only tersely and rather late in its discussion summarizing the history and personalities of the KSW. Consequently, this book will grow in significance as the conversation around and about the KSW catches up to it.

While it is a long overdue extended effort, it is immediately remarkable for what it avoids in that ripe terrain. Burnham has opted not to tell the story of the group, in however nuanced a fashion he might have chosen from the rich palette of post-modern historiographic techniques. He has, however, attempted to establish some parameters or terms for a conversation about the KSW. He does not systematically catalogue the names of all the principal figures involved in the collective, nor has he attempted to catalogue the texts and contexts of their work, but he does isolate a small number of potent exemplars to illuminate his theoretical frame. The Only Poetry That Matters thus reads more like the third or fourth book on a topic: eschewing the establishmentarian phase—the obvious what is it and why is it interesting approach—for an idiosyncratic fresh angle on a well-travelled topic.

What does Burnham write about then? Charles Bernstein says it well in his back-cover blurb: “This book could be subtitled ‘Dr. Lacan in British Columbia.’ Burnham ventriloquizes the old master.” Indeed, the greater part of this book is spent explicating Lacan’s theories and methods and then applying them to a very small number of poems written by a few members of the collective. Why Lacan? Well, ignoring the personal anecdotes that the author occasionally references as justification, I note that the close readings themselves present enough compelling evidence for this vantage point: Burnham demonstrates significant overlap between Lacanian concepts and KSW aesthetics, particularly through the linguistic interrogation of the semiotic. There is a shared endeavour to confront the cultural basis of meaning-making, eschewing a more digestible nomenclaturist conceptualization and expressivist use of language. The language of KSW poetry includes a politically perhaps ontologically engaged writing of absence, a “breaking off of discourse . . . that brings about full meaning” through negation and contestation.

Burnham’s book identifies three recurring techniques in KSW writing, which he describes as empty (and full) speech, social collage, and neo-pastoralism. While he resists making any totalizing proclamations about the relation between these three and KSW writing as a whole, he demonstrates how Lacanian approaches to each can be useful in reading difficult poems. Even
his exegesis of Red Toryism (a Canadian political concept that he articulates in the context of representations of the landscape in work by Peter Culley, Dan Farrell, and Lisa Robertson) approaches that concept through Lacan’s notions of desire and split subjectivity. A similar framing occurs in his discussion of the KSW archives.

Who is this book for? Literary theorists will find it instructive as a case study in using Lacanian models as the template for literary analysis and exegesis. While it does not serve as a general introduction to the KSW, it does offer a number of pedagogical close-readings of KSW authors and texts sprinkled throughout the book, teaching readers how KSW (or Language, or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) works. These sections are fascinating exercises in unpacking dense linguistic nuggets without sacrificing their nuanced language. To be clear, the book presents these as exemplars of its theoretical frame(s), putting the theory first, without explaining why it addresses some works over others. Instead, this book works from an unstated assumption about the KSW as a known phenomenon with recognized contributions to literature. This is a book, then, that will grow in significance as—and admittedly if—a broader conversation about North American literature grows in its direction, learns who and what the KSW is, was, and are, and recognizes significance in its ongoing impact in Lacanian terms. Bernstein’s blurb on the back cover describes the KSW as “an absolutely crucial, compelling, and provocative poetry collective that emerged on Canada’s West Coast in the 1980s.” After The Only Poetry That Matters, there is still room for that kind of “first” book on the collective to make the case explicitly.

This review “Signifier Desire” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 156-57.

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