Playful Disruption

Reviewed by Dougal McNeill

The “redemption of Language,” Roy Kiyooka announces in his Pacific Rim Letters, “is a real issue mired within the tissue” of ideology. How to press through the mire? Begin “with the body and its / ah! Myriad extensions,” the poem continues. That “ah!”—with its disruption of Kiyooka’s line’s flow and with its promise of revelation— is an example of what Johanna Skibsrud, in her expansive, restless, and rewarding collection, would call “the poetic imperative”: those moments when knowledge is produced “through active intuition” and when poetry functions “not as a repository of received knowledge, but rather as a playful disruption of sense and logic aimed at eliciting unexpected connections.” Kiyooka’s trans-media work, mixing painting, writing, photography, and sound recording drew widely and generously from his personal history, his social world, and his travels to fold generative material into his poetry, compiling a rich archive of examples of the process that Skibsrud describes as the ways in which “human being is constantly being activated within and through language and knowledge.” The thrill of Kiyooka’s writing, for this reader anyway, comes with its expansiveness, its reach, and its eagerness: the Transcanada Letters and Pacific Rim Letters in particular want to leave nothing out, and offer readers multiple points of contact and chances for reflection. Juliana Pivato, in her introduction to Pictura, praises Kiyooka’s “generous diffusion”: generosity is a keyword in her collection. Kiyooka, Pivato tells us, “readily experimented with legibility through form and possessed an intensity that was activated by complexity, density and excess.” She places his writing in imaginative relation with the tradition Skibsrud traces, transgressing the critical boundaries that fence off modernist, postmodernist, and experimental verse—a tradition of poets who have sought ways to expand “the poetic” into non-linguistic materials. Poetry, for Skibsrud, “takes place in the intersection between” mimesis and magic; “both creative and mimetic,” this poetry manages “imitation of ” and “deliberate departure from” lived reality. Her genealogy of writers affiliated with this lineage offers a productive way of reading Kiyooka anew. Kiyooka’s focus on the limits of the imagination—and on the ways racialization, structural oppression, and exclusion can stunt the self-forming possibilities of the “self-reflexive, provisional, and speculative terrain of human being” that Skibsrud celebrates—offers politicized nuance and ethical reflection.

The Poetic Imperative: A Speculative Aesthetics is short (under two hundred pages), but not slight; its chapters rattle through crucial debates in contemporary aesthetic theory and shoot out insights like so many sparks from wheels on a track along the way. Skibsrud is drawn to poetry working “at the unstable limits of subjectivity and knowledge”: open in its “intimacy with strangeness and uncertainty” and drawing out “the interplay between conscious recognition and what cannot be said.” Particularly drawn to multimedia artists and writers conscious of the poem as a moment of performance, Skibsrud develops her argument by way of paired readings, joining together Canadian, American, and European poets in comparative accounts. Her range of reference is pleasingly expansive and unexpected—from Wallace Stevens to Douglas Kearney, pulling in Angela Rawlings, Muriel Rukeyser, M. NourbeSe Philip, Anne Carson, Erín Moure, and Christian Bök, among others—and her theoretical and critical interlocutors range from Agamben to Solnit. If all of this leaves the reader occasionally short of critical breath, the intelligence, daring, and drive of each essay rewards rereading. Listen up!

Pictura is more tightly bound but no less rewarding, and makes no attempt to fix Kiyooka within any critical frame. After all, as Juliana Pivato asked at the book’s online launch, how do you account for an artist that would not be contained? Her contributors answer this question by attending to Kiyooka’s boundlessness, with fine chapters on the Roy Kiyooka Audio Archive by Deanna Fong, on Transcanada Letters’ “conceptual bookwork” by Felicity Tayler, and two on The Artist and the Moose and its afterlives. A full scholarly apparatus, including a useful bibliography, chronology, and two previously hard-to-locate critical works (one an essay by Roy Miki, the other an interview with Sheila Watson), adds to this collection. The collection’s title is “a reference to the invigorating pull that endures between acts of sight and acts of speech,” and there are rewards for the reader as they are pulled between Kiyooka’s visual and audio legacy and his written work, between his utopian enthusiasm and his melancholy registering of the ongoing history of racism and colonialism. Kiyooka notoriously resisted “the nouning of his identity,” Tavleen Purewal notes in an aphorism typical of Pictura’s combination of elegant stylishness and critical insight, and each essay takes the measure of how his poetic determination to verb his life responded to attempts at nouning by others. Veronica J. Austen, in a bravura reading, draws out how “the ‘inglish’ Kiyooka creates” is not “merely a textual language” but also “one that makes use of the communicative potential of the visual.” Reading Kiyooka’s oeuvre whole without reducing its myriad parts is a difficult task, but one the essays collected here manage with wit, sensitivity, and care.

This review “Playful Disruption” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 30 Nov. 2020. Web.

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