Several weeks ago in my post on the symposium celebrating the work of poet, editor, scholar, and Japanese-Canadian internment activist Roy Miki, I mentioned that a new book by Rita Wong, Forage, had been awarded the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize for the best book by a writer from British Columbia or the Yukon. Since then I’ve been able to re-read Wong’s book, and as with her previous collections Monkey Puzzle and Sybil Unrest (the latter co-authored with Larissa Lai) I am simultaneously aesthetically astonished and socially energized by the articulation of deft and daring cultural production to the politics of social and environmental injustices within and among (simultaneously) the local, national, and transnational scales.
Forage opens with a circular photograph (notes at the back of the book inform the reader of the photograph’s origin, the interior of the Victoria Rice Mills with packaged rice in mats and a Chinese worker in the foreground). On the facing page is a crescent-shaped visual poem that moves the “r” sound through the terms rice, rise, and riven. So hums the poetic politics, in sound and image and poem, in the opening salvo of the book. On the next page, the poem “Value Chain” opens with the questions “how to turn english from a low-context language into a high-context language?” and “what is the context for ‘you people are hard workers’?”, questions to which the remainder of the book will offer a series of possible and varied (poetic) replies.
A dozen pages later, readers encounter another photograph, this time in a square frame: “Worker Agnes Wong of Whitecourt, Alberta, assembles a sten gun produced for China by the Small Arms Ltd. plant, Long Branch, ON, April, 1944”—this time, across from the thirteen-line poem “the dance of the dutiful daughter.” Later pieces like “reconnaissance” and “reverb,” include a quotation from Pun Ngai’s Made in China—“A new Chinese working class is struggling to be born at the moment when the language of class is curtailed and becomes inarticulate. The new working class is this spectral other, gazing at itself but expecting no one else to see it. An orphan’s fate is its misery as well as its luck”—as well as lines that respond to the previous quote on the local scale: “i counted sweatshops in vancouver’s east side until i got dizzy and fainted.”
As a title in Nightwood Editions “blewointment book” series (in honor, and extending the publishing legacy, of concrete poet bill bissett), Forage experiments in unique and highly productive ways with the amalgamation of computer-set type and hand inscription (thus extending bissett’s own practice). Many pieces include hand-written quotations around the outer edges of the poems from environmental activists from Rachel Carson to Vandana Shiva as well as inscriptions in Chinese.
Wong’s project, in my view, links in creative, constructive ways with the recent work of Aihwa Ong, whose publications include Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality, Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty, and Privatizing China: Socialism from Afar, among others. It posits the praxis of poetry—its attention to alliterations and allusions and parallelism and pastiche—amidst larger global conversations on the cultural, the social, and the environmental. It is a writ-large, fierce commentary on the current and future state of the globe, an “eco-indictment,” as Dionne Brand calls it, and “a harmolodic for the bruised planet.”
Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants (Coffee House Press, 2000), Shut Up Shut Down (Coffee House Press, 2008), and Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009). His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New...