#739 Consider the image and the word
The Eyelash and the Monochrome
by Tiziana La Melia
Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2018
$19.95 / 9781772011975
beholden: a poem as long as a river
by Rita Wong and Fred Wah
Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2018
$24.95 / 9781772012118
Both books reviewed by Candace Fertile
Talonbooks has published two works by Vancouver writers, works that combine poetry and images, in two different ways. Tezia La Melia’s The Eyelash and the Monochrome is the more conventional of the two, although hardly conventional in any meaningful sense, being largely a collection of experimental poems. Rita Wong and Fred Wah’s beholden: a poem as long as a river has grown out of a project called River Relations: A Beholder’s Share of the Columbia River, and the book captures in small form a 114-foot banner of the river and the accompanying poem. Both books are challenging (and rewarding) to read, although in diverse ways.
In the Acknowledgments, La Melia describes her book as “a composition of interactions with people, places, slime, flowers, glands, screens, tulle, sweat, weather, and nonhuman forces.” That’s as good a summary as any I could come up with. Most of the illustrations are her own. Any that are not her own are identified by the name of the artist, and few are well known to a general audience. The book has seven sections that include lineated and prose poems that are inspired by, or perhaps inspired, the images. The longest section is the title one, “The Eyelash and the Monochrome,” sixty pages of poems, some as short as one line, along with illustrations. And yes, the eyelash is a topic; for example, “The Eyelash dramatizes the blank before me. It personifies time, it is a comfort stuck in time. It turned the blank, from a curvy void into a rectangle.” Meaning is surely generated by the dance of writer, artist, reader, and viewer. And it varies.
La Melia creates fabulous images in words that then stretch ideas into new territory. For example, in the third poem of the first section, “Midnight Soap,”
The leggy poppies’ downy stems are some kind of antennae to feel the air
“Let’s pretend to read electricity.”
Let’s retire to the crotch of a big walnut tree.
The lines induce mental whiplash, but it doesn’t hurt. Quite the contrary. The illustrations in various media are less enticing to me, but that’s no criticism of La Melia’s work. Clearly a gifted artist, she won the 2014 RBC painting competition. Overall, sometimes the forms of the poems overwhelm the content, but if approached with an open and a relaxed mind, this book is a delight.
Wong and Wah’s beholden: a poem as long as a river also requires patience and curiosity. First of all, because the book is wider than it is high, and because the covers are soft, it’s hard to hold. It needs to be read on a flat surface. The illustrations include a map of the Columbia River, with the river running from left to right across the pages and continuing throughout the book. In Canada, the river is blue; in the US, it’s green. And the survey details marked on the river are fascinating, although quite small at times. It would be wonderful to see the banner of the river and poetry in its full 114-foot glory.
The two poets have written lines of poetry that also continue throughout the book, Wah’s in type and Wong’s in hand printing. The lines of the poems, one above and one below the river, occasionally cross and change places in a kind of conversation with each other and with the river. The book is a homage to the Columbia, a reverent celebration of its life-giving water, its flora and fauna, and the Indigenous people who protected and protect the river. And the book is a wake-up call to the people who have failed to take responsibility or who have forgotten the importance of the river. The environment has been degraded, and we need to be reminded of how we are all linked with the river.
Wah’s voice tends to be more informal than Wong’s, but both are deadly serious about the river. For example, Wah writes, “the River’s voice is the sound our body makes when we’re sleepwalking through the abyss of our own presence in the world,” and Wong describes:
Long needled ponderosa pine witnesses profit motive & the whispering wind through summer heat & choking dust storms through dolled up American imperialism that turns freedom into reservations imposes imaginary but policed lines onto the curves of land and water.
Both poets are deeply committed to the subject and have spent much time visiting the river, listening to it and watching it. That comes through clearly.
These two books are stimulating for many reasons. Talonbooks is to be commended for publishing works that don’t easily fit into a category. Perhaps thought-provoking is the best way to describe these two works as they provoke consideration not only of image and word, but of the myriad connections between the two.
Candace Fertile has a PhD in English literature from the University of Alberta. She teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria, writes book reviews for several Canadian publications, and is on the editorial board of Room Magazine.
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