||Word-Pranks and Identity Politics
by Jack Illingworth
When Surrender was awarded the 2002 Governor General's Award for poetry in English, it received some fleeting, belated, and largely vapid media attention. Journalists (who had, at best, given the book a single glance before safely paraphrasing its press release) represented it as a sort of verse Obasan, a moving account of the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. This collection of poems, Roy Miki's third, is an altogether more difficult, and contemporary text than the press it has received would lead one to believe, albeit one that seemingly bears all the signs that destine books for obscurity in the scrum of Canadian poetry: it is small press, west coast, and largely concerned with a radical variety of "racialized" cultural theory. Miki himself has been most visible in poetry circles as a prolific editor of his better-known peers: his editions of George Bowering, Roy K. Kiyooka, and bpNichol are both sympathetic and comprehensive. The broader public has encountered him as one of the social activists who successfully spearheaded the Japanese Canadian Redress Settlement, and cultural studies academics will know him as a leading theorist of race and identity.
What Surrender does not do is dramatize the internment and displacement of Miki's parents' generation; its narrative moments tend to be about Miki himself, not the internees or the politicians and bureaucrats who effortlessly transformed them from Canadian citizens into enemy aliens with a stroke of legislation. This is perhaps because the resulting leap of empathy could tempt his readers into a complacent identification with his subjects (a tactic that Miki emphatically denounces in his critical writings), or because Miki dealt comprehensively with this narrative in his first collection of poems, Saving Face. Instead, he relies on the quotation of archival evidence of the internment¨sometimes edited, sometimes presented verbatim¨to give the historical event a tangible presence within his work. Indeed, the figure of the document becomes a leitmotif in Surrender, both through the use of quotation and through the series of lyrics titled "material recovery" which are scattered throughout the text.
Mikis poems are always, on one level, abstract syntheses of his primary critical concerns: the postmodern, wordplay-based poetics practiced by Bowering, Nichol, and Robert Kroetsch, and the historicized cultural politics that he expounds in his collection of essays, Broken Entries: Race Subjectivity Writing. While the intersection of 'Pataphysics'-influenced word-pranks and contemporary identity-politics may initially seem obscure, Miki's project (as I understand it) may be summarized quite simply: he employs a poetics which destabilizes the signifying properties of language in an attempt to undermine normalized concepts of "racial" identity and power. The success or failure of this venture overrides any aesthetic consideration, and this often draws the poems included in Surrender into the abstract language of cultural theory. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, it has the effect of turning much of Miki's poetry into an appendix to his criticism, and significant sections of his ideologically anti-hierarchical text unintelligible to anyone who has not studied or taught in a progressive humanities department within the last ten years¨a strange turn into hermeticism for a cultural activist whose greatest achievements have been outside of the ivory tower. Sometimes Miki takes up the language of academia in a teasingly subversive manner, as in the serial poem "knocks on the door":
the young model on the tonight show theorizes her praxis as an
ontologically situated validation of "me-ness." "i just want to be
me" she muses into the gaze of her host who dialogically agrees that
"he" too "is merely a derivative product of a certain contingent,
historically specific set of linguistically infused social practices that
inscribe power relations upon bodies"
More often, however, he throws together straight theory and fragments of lyric, closing his text to those who have not made a study of poststructuralism, as in the first footnote to "anticipation alert":
the insularity of racialization not only across spatial demarcations but
temporal ones. the visually coded body undergoes
a reading in altitudes that
tick away. disguise the skin to birth a
Surrender's most interesting moments come when Miki pushes the possibilities of his chosen mode of formalism by constructing polyphonic poems in which several texts are presented simultaneously, either set in opposition on either side of the book's spine or competing for the reader's attention on shared pages. Some of these poems, such as "a walk through portage mall", are also Surrender's most inviting texts. Here, a series of conflated visits to Winnipeg become the occasion for a sophisticated dialogue of memory, observation, documentation, and cultural theory. Four distinct voices, distinguished by typography and plenty of white space, combine to effect a pleasingly mimetic structure in which the stark facts of the poet's familial history contest the superficially benign commercial polis. The suggestiveness of vaguely expansive poetic language ("the dent unrealized / on parquet floors // served up (later / in the frozen food") is unleashed against the bland imperative of governmental English ("'Your family has been selected / for the beet sugar scheme.'")
Most of the poems in Surrender, however, are made of tamer stuff. Miki follows the institutionally approved practices of the Canadian avant-garde, bringing together fragments of found language and personal impression into Black Mountain-derived lyrics that suggest much more than they say. Their frame of reference is broad and frequently very private; Miki has been engaged in a kind of politicized life writing throughout his poetic career. Surrender is a text that is in the habit of talking to itself, one that often begrudges its readers the privilege of eavesdropping. It has its share of interesting poems, but its shroud of solipsism is thick enough to keep all but its most determined readers at bay.