There (Roy Miki)

There is Roy Miki's first book of poetry since 2001's Surrender (which won the Governor General's Award for Poetry). In between, Miki authored a non-fiction book, and seems to have remained very much in the academic mode while writing There.

Miki's interest in theory is even more evident here than in his previous work, both of which is very obviously informed by political philosophy. However, There is not quite as successful as Surrender in its marriage of the political and the poetic.

In Miki's previous books, he's much more interested in the aesthetic possibilities of language, while in There language is approached abstractly, as a political entity within which power flows and to which Miki attends as scholar, not student.

Objectively, there is nothing wrong with this approach, but when it comes down to the level of the writing, There is much clumsier and more obvious than Miki's previous work. As a reader who values subtlety and visceral engagement more than intellectual contemplation (which I must add, I also value highly), I have to admit that I feel a little let down by this book, especially after such a long wait.

A good example of the kind of intelligent but awkward and uninteresting language is the prose poem “The Young Kid”, in which Miki meditates on a photograph (reprinted in the book) of Pierre Elliott Trudeau signing a photograph of himself for a young child:

Look again closely at the conjunction of all the bodies held in place by the image of the image. The hand signing, inscribing his name as the extension of the frame, produces a social relationship. He thought of a photographic inset of the future yet to be – yet to be because the nation, in a symbolic twist, here writes its story on the virile poster and not in his memory. (4)

The problem with a passage like this, which is otherwise insightful, is that it does not rise to the level of art. The photograph itself, which prefaces this poem, does (by contrast) pack a visceral punch while still creating, sustaining, and commenting wordlessly on a complex set of relationships between the figures in the photograph, Trudeau in the photograph within the photograph, and (by suggestion) the prospective viewers of both photographs.

Miki's poem is relegated to the status of a gloss on this photo, and his thoughts about the picture pale next to the unarticulated complexities of the image.

Elsewhere, Miki is more successful. One of the best poems in the collection is “If It's Not Asian It Can't Be Good,” in which Miki angrily but comically satirizes Occidental attitudes regarding Oriental stereotypes, writing:

Look at the allure of the steaming bowl of noodles
Look and see the magic chopsticks do all their tricks
The pickaxe is only the virtual
accoutrement of a secret aesthetics (15-16)

Those last two lines are excellent — here Miki satirizes detached intellectualization of racist attitudes pervading North American society, with an allusion to the Asian labourers who built Canada's railways as if they were concerned with the “secret aesthetics” of their backbreaking trade.

How Miki can seem so conscious of the deleterious effects of this intellectual detachment, while otherwise taking such a bloodlessly analytical approach to his material, is beyond me.

There are some places where Miki marries his interests in poetic and political language, as with the line “The bus stop emptied of content” (38) — a brilliantly evocative image which nonetheless conveys an academic punch — and “Sagacity doubles / As city saga” (11) — which is not an outstanding line, but at least shows Miki is aware of language-as-material. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between.

Another misstep is the continual inclusion of photographs. New Star has bankrolled colour images throughout, photographs Miki has peppered in the book. There are also a handful of reproductions credited to persons other than Miki, like the Trudeau photograph and installation art by Baco Ohama (photographed by James D. Brown).

The inclusion of photographs as part of a poem is nothing new, but infrequent enough to be noteworthy. Unfortunately, Miki's photographs seem amateurish alongside the work by Ohama and the photograph of Trudeau, which are stunning.

His photographs are basic streetscapes, with few exceptions, and while they evoke the urban environment with which Miki is concerned, they seem intended to function as replacements for written evocation of this environment, and so the poems continue their bloodless trudge across the page in a highly abstracted, over-intellectualized fashion.

Miki is a talented poet, but There simply doesn't show off his talent. It's too concerned with throwing ideas at the reader, ideas which would have been more full and compelling if developed through essays rather than poems.

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