“The lemon is not a lemon”: Flowing Letters for Our Time

  • Roy Miki (Author) and Michael Barnholden (Editor)
    Flow: Poems Collected and New. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)

The title of the collected poetry of Roy Miki, Flow, does not come as a surprise. Miki’s lifelong work as a poet, cultural activist, and academic, has consistently strained the stabilization of discursive systems by putting received assumptions about language and representation under erasure. Flow is an apt title for a body of poetic work that privileges the slippages and unruly fluidities of language associated with the immediacy of individual and social lives. In short, it is a critically informed working practice that interrogates the shifts and contradictions of the historical conditions of the present—and the effects that such contradictions create for “identity formation” and the structuring of subjectivity—but which also explores the creative possibilities opened up in the subject’s relation to power.

This hefty volume, brought together by the careful editorship of Michael Barnholden and accompanied by the brilliant preface of Louis Cabri (“Floward”), is part of the Talonbooks Collected series of poetry of (so far) West Coast writers Phyllis Webb, Fred Wah, Daphne Marlatt, and (forthcoming) George Bowering—all Miki’s fellow-poet travelers, despite the differences in poetic generation or poetic style. This volume gives readers the opportunity to examine more closely the discursive horizon that such poetic relations (and communities of poetries) have produced in his work.

The collection includes published and new work. It spans the writer’s lifelong preoccupation with the relation of aesthetics to politics—in particular the politics of form. Such preoccupation is shared with many writers but it acquires a particular significance at the height of “identity politics” in Canada from the 1970s to the 1990s, when the constitution of racialized subjectivities in relation to the power of the nation-state came under scrutiny in conjunction with the establishment of state multiculturalism and the Redress movement’s struggles. That the mediation of experience in consciousness is not the ownership of a property-laden “I” but, instead, is always caught in the contingency of the different discourses available to the subject at the time of its constitution also raises questions about memory and the re-processing of experiences in the present. What are the limitations of articulations in language if language itself sets the stage for such articulations? Can the subject of experience ever be recuperated in a later present? What is the place of the body at the intersection of body memory and the contained body of official discourses? Flow is not an autobiography in the traditional understanding of the term. But in moving through the sequence of Miki’s poetic works one is struck by the way in which the collection produces its own poetic social story. In Miki and Barnholden’s “Inter View” at the end of the volume, Miki expresses it best: “The poetry is the truer biography.” I would add that it is also a poetic biography that writes a significant time in Canada’s (ongoing) history, not attempting to “correct” national narratives but, instead, unleashing the potential of language (as Cabri also suggests in his “Floward”). Echoing texts such as Roy Kiyooka’s transcanada letters (1975), the poetry is also a cultural document.

Previously published poetry in the volume include saving face: poems selected, 1976-1988 (1991), random access file (1995), Surrender (2001), There (2006), and Mannequin Rising (2011). To the reader’s great pleasure, a completely new section, Cloudy and Clear (2018), is also included. The later work (There, Mannequin Rising, and Cloudy and Clear) also shows a renewed engagement (for the literary poet-scholar) with the medium of photography and photo-collage in addressing the problem of “framing” as well as the power of visual culture in constructing neo-liberal subjectivity under the hegemony of globalization.

We cannot speak of continuities in the conventional sense of linearity in Miki’s work but, rather, of continuous and playful engagement with language as well as the exceeding of the limits of language—limits that can be rendered calcified by discursive power but which also produce resistances, unsignifiable residues, and creative possibilities. In engaging with Miki’s poetry, we recognize the influence of past voices—from Charles Olson and W.C. Williams (with echoes of Gertrude Stein) to the rich encounter with Roy Kiyooka and bpNichol’s “lettering” practice and the many language-based poetics of the postmodern scene (Robert Kroetsch, Fred Wah, George Bowering, and Rita Wong to name only a few), but Miki’s style always combines the singular and the collective, the personal and the communal in a poetics of flow that opens up spaces of language.

This review ““The lemon is not a lemon”: Flowing Letters for Our Time” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 17 Jan. 2020. Web.

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