Poetry Review by Joseph LaBine

Ken Belford, Slick Reckoning (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2016). Paperbound, 90 pp., $16.95.

Slick ReckoningKen Belford’s latest book of poetry, Slick Reckoning, opens: “In the poem there are no forbidden gaps.” Nothing is off limits, and Belford’s long poem delivers a heartfelt, stirring, tender, but ultimately challenging message about poetic truth. Intent on unsettling settlers on un-ceded Indigenous land, the author presents the reader with an eco-poet’s view of nature in a “lan(d)guage” that traces its origins in Gitxsan, down the mountains and across the Damdochax valley. This book is a gift to readers, especially aspiring poets. Belford says, “When the poem changes hands i hope / there will be no loss of the simple rhythms.”

In Slick Reckoning nothing is “slick” in the polished, artificial sense. Belford does a wonderfully nimble job of conveying his arguments in an unfolding, long-form poetic style. This book is a healing journey through the bush. It began initially as a blog post for The Insurgent Architects’ House for Creative Writing at the University of Calgary. The driving sequence evolved out of illness, and Belford’s recovery from cancer, generating some very different poems. We are told, “Five rewrites later, i can say i wrote this book through cancer.” Through the glimmer of each revision, Belford shapes a bold and gentle language (opposed to anything “slick”) to accommodate new ideas and material arising from his treatment. Writing in a manner that is erudite and accessible, he proves adept at mitigating frustration through patience. The result of months of suffering (“my body is fallible”) is Belford’s ars poetica—his best, sustained meditation against conformist culture, in a moving sequence that is decidedly anti- “misogironic” poetry, and against the romantic lyrics he interprets as “vacant poems”: “…talking about / abandoned pastures, the empty / game & the commonly / accepted creative memes / that are actually thefts.” Belford constantly highlights his poetic obligation to land and language, while rightfully acknowledging the unheard voices of female and First Nations writers.

Much could be said about this book’s anger. There is an inherent sense of outrage directed at the “Nedo”—the Gitxsan slang for “white man,” at “english” and “american” colonial practice, and patriarchal privilege (“The male image is printed / on paper in black and white / by the prototypic male person”). By using Gitxsan names, by not capitalizing the “i” and keeping the lowercase “e” and “a,” Belford attempts to rob these signifiers of their cultural prominence and importance. He writes against identity poetics generally: “i don’t practise naming practices. / It used to be that poetry / was more likely to be made / by scholarly men about a / stable system of meaning or / a sense of trouble would arise.” Belford implicates Northrop Frye with this nod to “a stable system.” Where Frye sees a chaos and ugly shapelessness in nature, Belford sees an existing language untouched by colonial aggression. However, the perpetrators are not properly taken to task—Slick Reckoningis not their reckoning; it is ours: “Don’t try to bullshit me with / your invented snobbery. It’s / just a form of bourgeois / escapism, as poetry can be./ because you are spoiled / and infected with the rot / of an imagined pastoral life.”

In this respect, the book can, at times, feel like an angry argument with straw men. It’s an excusable flaw because, “They don’t come to answer.” Those responsible for the discrimination, the people behind the voices screaming racist hate, are not listening.

Belford’s efforts to help reclaim Indigenous land and poetry are also frustrated, perhaps because he is implicated as a white, English speaker but who also identifies as an outsider:

i’m not english, i’m someone else.
i speak mountain poetry. The english
kids in the neighbourhood knew i was
an outsider, one for the books.

It means poetry and identity in
the old language & i hear it with
an accent, in the languages i knew
before american, but i loved
the ridges and the furrows. 

These notions of outsider English and “un-american” identity draw a fine line. Belford is careful to avoid identifying as “Canadian,” and therefore avoids slipping into nationalism. On the other hand, he constantly retreats into the woods and trails of northern B.C. with a sense of belonging and an intention of staying there.

The best-laid arguments in Slick Reckoning acknowledge the obligation of poets to remain outsiders, and the importance of eclecticism: being “dangerous” for having radical ideas but remaining non-violent, and being against irony but still critical of the world. Belford shares this counter-irony stance with Phil Hall’s essay-poem, “To See It All and Not be Weary.” Both poets are writing “against the merely weird.” For Belford, “The problem with irony is / it isn’t worth taking seriously. / It’s very something.”

Another thing to admire is Belford’s outright suspicion of “Poetry.” He writes, “Poets make my life hell […] Poetry demands everything from me.” Given his cancer, the subject matter he is giving voice to, the trouble of writing this exceptional work, this last statement is wholly true and uttered without irony. There is a sublime silence at play. It is immense, harsh, but beautiful: “In fact, if you go far enough, / you will discover there are / no people in paradise. Nature / is a serial killer. In the old / sunken paths in the head- / waters, there is no more / poetry to be found.”

Slick Reckoningis British Columbia’s literary event of the year. This tidy paperback from Talonbooks should be mandatory reading for poets.

—Joseph LaBine

As in The Malahat Review, 201, Winter 2017, 98-102