The Answer to Anything

  • Ken Belford (Author), Jordan Scott (Editor), Rob Budde (Editor) and Si Transken (Editor)
    The Answer to Everything: Selected Poems of Ken Belford. Caitlin Press (purchase at
  • Chris Banks (Author)
    Deepfake Serenade. Nightwood Editions (purchase at
Reviewed by Sunny Chan

A posthumous collection named after the last poem Ken Belford wrote months before his death, The Answer to Everything is at once a look back at the evolution of a self-taught poet and an expression of love. With a foreword by Belford’s close friend Rob Budde, who met him through talking about steelhead trout, and an afterword by Belford’s wife Si Transken, with whom he shared seven cats and a pollinator garden, the collection takes the reader chronologically through Belford’s poetry.


The arrangement demonstrates not only his evolution as a writer, but also how he touched the human and non-human lives around him. Belford dubbed his poetics “lan(d)guage,” informed by his knowledge and relationship with the land and influenced by his decades as a back-country ecotourism guide. Lan(d)guage partly involves the interleaving of disparate semantics, which reminds Budde of “not looking for a single line of argument or location of representation,” but instead “paying attention to the ways the zones interact, like the complex ecology of a place” (9).


The earliest poems in the collection come from Belford’s 1967 Fireweed, and most consist of three or four stanzas of three lines. His second book in 1970 shows a marked difference in formal experimentation, with sometimes deliberately misspelled text taking up different parts of the page. We then skip from 1970 to 2000, when longer poems appear. From the end of 2005 to 2016, a very distinctive style emerges: prose poetry, and the exploration of solid blocks of text. Titles to individual poems drop away and do not return until the final poem, “The answer to everything” in 2019. The poems veer wildly from critiques of poetic institutions, to impassioned arguments for vegetarianism, to contemplations of social justice, to childhood memories, and always to nature. But the lack of titles has the effect of making them feel like walking through the same forest to see a series of different landscapes.


Belford takes pride in being “a working class poet, a child of farmers” who “never taught school and [was] not celebrated” (55). Despite his close relationships to many of the big Canadian names that shaped TISH and after, and despite his shared aesthetic and political interests, he shows how a writer does not have to be a member of something or against something in order to share a conversation. He can be an adjacent third way—”Poems that sound alike are unalike” (113).


Where The Answer to Everything is a reflective look back, Deepfake Serenade glimpses directly through the present into the future. The titular poem alludes to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (deadly balcony serenades; “Sadly, we all die in the final act” [9]), but juxtaposes it against the decidedly more modern technology of deepfakes, which consist of video manipulated to make a person appear to be someone else.


Many of Banks’ poems look to the future: new love, coming tragedies, the moon’s gradual movement away from the Earth, burgeoning climate change, space exploration, aging. These musings, along with references to contemporary movies and pop music, are put next to references to older art (Da Vinci, Aristotle, Camille Claudel). Whereas the juxtaposition in Belford felt like separate zones of ecological interaction, it is easy to trace the train of thought that leads to Banks’ references. The effect is reminiscent of Wikipedia, where the Hubble Space Telescope is a few interesting clicks away from French sculptors. This Wikipedia-like effect is most formally apparent in “Footnotes,” where lines branch out into numbered footnotes, visually similar to the clickable references on that website. The third footnote comes at the end of the last line, “When asked / your name, take the plea. Say Anonymous.3” The superscript leads to a footnote that says, “Although the universe is bugged, continue to speak freely” (45).


There is something moving about this defiance in the midst of despondence. Anonymous, too, is a reference to the technological now—to a decentralized hacktivist collective—contrasted in a poem that also mentions Degas. But the juxtaposition that stands out to me as a reader here is that of hope in the midst of helplessness, which also recurs throughout the collection. For all the existential fears of memory loss, ecological apocalypse, and grief that the poems explore, they are also dizzyingly accompanied by hope and love. “The foundation of civilization is leaking / but look for the people with buckets,” Banks says; “Trying is the best form of optimism” (46).

This review “The Answer to Anything” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 23 Aug. 2023. Web.

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