Poetry Review by Kathryn MacLeod

Fred Wah, Scree: The Collected Earlier Poems, 1962-91, edited by Jeff Derksen (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2015). Paperbound, 633 pp., $29.95.

ScreeScree, a handsome and expansive collection containing almost thirty years of Wah's poetry, is both an introduction to and overview of the writer's powerful but understated literary oeuvre. Wah is notable as a prize-winning author (including the 1985 Governor General's Award for Waiting For Saskatchewan), a founding member of the Tish group, and Canada's Poet Laureate from 2011 to 2013. His poetry moves from the minute details of daily life, landscape, and relationships into broad questions of culture, mixed identity, and memory. In reviewing this significant collection as a whole, it is the sense of movement, both inward and outward, that left its deepest impression. As Wah writes: "But all of it, out there, is measured from in here. In the particularity of a place the writer finds revealed the correspondences of a whole world."

The title of the collection, as noted by Jeff Derksen in the book's introductory Reader's Manual, refers to the "small rocks that have…cracked free" and splayed, fan-shaped, on the side of a mountain, broken by the vicissitudes of seasons and weather. Wah's poems, deeply rooted in both geographical and cultural place, often focus on the physical details of being in a particular location and time, but in doing so, expand and open into a greater world view. This book does the same—its careful attention to detail (including reproducing, exactly, mimeographed chapbooks from the 1970s) begins with Wah's earliest publication in the 1960s as part of the Tish collective and moves into the formal constructions of Japanese haibun and utaniki published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As his body of work expands over time, so does its breadth and insight, even as the author breaks, disrupts and refines poetic form. Like the mountain that is a recurring image throughout Wah's work, the vistas of Scree are both subtle and breathtaking:

Hey Mountain there
spring up in the sky my skull holds
a blazing green of scree and trees
Hey your ice your ice
it hides
moves and slides

Throughout Wah's work, one moves through time and history: not only through the shifting form and style of his developing poetic voice, but in the deepening understanding of the cultural, poetic, familial, and political identities he inhabits. Wah was born in Saskatchewan to a Canadian-born Chinese-Irish-Scots father and a Swedish mother who came to Canada as a young child. Wah's hybridity, as he has referred to his mixed heritage, is one of the important seams of exploration in his later work. In Scree, this focus on identity and history begins to emerge in the collection entitled Breathin' My Name With a Sigh (a fulcrum point in the book, as noted by Derksen in the Reader's Manual): "This is a book of remembering. I am trying to clarify what the language carries for me, the ontogeny. Somehow a selection of the information of a life is made and placed in such a way as to not only make note of it but also to allow it to generate truth otherwise impossible to locate."

In the later work represented in Scree (the 1980s and beyond), Wah's focus on the natural environment become entwined with the details of family history, memory, and identity, culminating in the final sections where he uses traditional Japanese forms to combine the local (domestic and geographic) with the distant (his family's links to China, history, China's political situation). This is where his use of form and content become, like scree on a mountainside, both fractured and part of a greater process. He ranges between formal experimentation and narrative constructions—and in particular, the narrative of his family enmeshed in a history of peoples, countries, and movement:

waiting for Saskatchewan
and the origins grandparents countries places converged
europe asia railroads carpenters nailed grain elevators
swift current my grandmother in her house he built on the street
and him his cafes namely the Elite on Centre

For me, the narrative "truth" of Wah's father's life and death carry the most significant personal, political, and poetic themes in this collection. His father, Canadian born, was sent to be raised in China at the age of four, and did not return until almost twenty. He spent his adult life running restaurants in small towns in B.C., and died young, in his fifties, on the dance floor with his wife. Wah's exploration of his relationship with (and knowledge of) his father, even after death, traces an obsessive and powerful journey. More than just a personal history, however, it is through this exploration that Wah delves deeply into the themes of displacement, identity, belonging, and loss, and ties these into questions that resonate culturally and politically. In the scope of this work the reader, like Wah, clings to shards of information in order to reconstruct a life's narrative: "Father, when you died you left me / with my own death. Until then I thought / nothing of it." And later:

I lie here and wait for life again
no one told me this happened
not death but a consequence of it
the physical isn't a world
at least it wasn't this morning
when I ran up the road out of breath
yet that is what I most desire.
Information. What leads up to death,
is only information.

Wah's final statement in this piece (from "Breathin' My Name With a Sigh") is startling and abrupt, almost bleak in its directness. The information of a life, even one's own life, is constructed into narrative afterwards. The death of a parent may bring about an awareness of one's own potential demise—a life-altering event that can bring truth that is "impossible to locate except in the placing of information." Wah's work, as captured in Scree, is thus: a deliberate placing of information that attempts to build a greater wholeness while recognizing that such an attempt is always incomplete, the result always fragmented. Wah's life and work are deeply connected to the mountains and landscapes of Canada's natural environment, and such wildness cannot be perfectly contained. And yet poetry will always shape the rubble of information—Wah's career of experimentation in sound and form bring intentional structure to a changing, decaying, and uncontrollable landscape. It is through the poet's attempt to contain, and his awareness of the impossibility of doing so, that the greatest vistas in this book are created.

—Kathryn MacLeod

As in The Malahat Review, 196, Autumn 2016, 99-101