Welcome back to “On Beauty,” a series of interviews with poets about their relations to beauty. For an introduction to the project, see poets on beauty.
This month I invited Shane Rhodes to think about beauty. At a reading from his new poetry book, X, which interrogates documents outlining Canada’s “Indian Policy,” he mentioned that he wasn’t interested in writing beautiful poems. I found that interesting, so I asked if he would do an “On Beauty” interview. He has addressed the same three questions I have asked the other poets interviewed, and has also graciously answered a follow-up.
1. Can you point me toward a poem you find beautiful? In what way do you think of or experience this poem as beautiful?
I’m not sure if what I look for is beauty – what I so often find attractive in a poem and in art in general is relevance to the world in which I live and ordered chaos. Maybe this is beauty? If it is, there is a roster of poets and poems I could point to. The Memoria del fuego (the Memory of Fire) trilogy by the Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano is admirable for its scope (to tell through poetry and narrative the history of the Western Hemisphere, with a focus on Latin America, pre- and post-Columbus) and ambition. I read the Memory of Fire a decade ago and, though I can’t recall specific lines, I still find myself thinking of its general rush of chaotic information, its stories of the erasure and construction of history, of cultural exchange, genocide, and colonization, and how it builds, over a thousand pages, a depth of memory that spans centuries. What I love about Galeano is that his understanding and writing of the present is based on a deep understanding of the past and how it continues to shape every action we take here, try as we might to forget. What is beautiful about these three books for me is that Galeano’s attention isn’t just on making good poems or paragraphs, his attention is on looking at how we exist in time and how our every action has its antecedent. For me, the beauty is in the complexity of the idea and how his telling is full of both order and chaos which, themselves, are part of the story he is trying to tell.
2. Do you hope for, look toward, seek out beauty in your work as a poet? Why or why not?
In my most recent project, X, much of my effort is to try to avoid beauty altogether and, instead, focus on the ugliness of language. This is a book on Canada’s post-Confederation Treaties (the numbered treaties) that were signed between the British Crown and then the Government of Canada with First Nations between the 1870s and 1920s (though adhesions to Treaty 11 were still being signed in the 1960s). These texts represent one of the largest, colonial land appropriate projects in the world and are the foundation of Canadian colonization and of ongoing settler, First Nations, Inuit and Métis relations. The post-confederation treaties, and their interpretation and implementation, ceded vast territories across Canada regardless of tens of thousands of years of First Nations’ history and placed Indians (it was a point of law that Indians be called Indians and not persons) on reserves smaller, in proportion, than the generous land grants being given to newly arrived settlers from Europe.
The treaties, the context of their creation, the nature of the language used to describe the enterprise (that they were called “treaties” when they were texts largely written in Ottawa and their signing involved little or no actual negotiation, compromise or even realistic explication), their various interpretations, and the ways in which they function set the tone and strategy for much Government “Indian policy” for centuries to come (they are integral, for example, to understanding why Canadians should be upset with Bill C-45 – which has now been passed into law – with its route of indigenous land and water rights).
My project is building poetry with the treaties and working with many different aspects of “Indian Policy” from the Indian Act, residential schools, the current forms that are used to register under the Indian Act, to the recent Idle No More protests and the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence. This isn’t a project about the beauty of language but about how you can see abstract ideas like colonization, settlement, racism and hate functioning in the foundational documents of Canada’s formation. I’m working with many ugly texts that most would rather forget and almost all would much rather not read (though I have to be careful of my own polarization here as some of the language of the treaties, for example, is actually quite beautiful in its obfuscating ornateness and military syncopation even though the intent behind the words may well be characterized as ugly). Throughout the project, I have had to consciously fight against my own desire to make poems that were tidy and beautiful – or, if there was to be beauty, that beauty had to serve a purpose. For example, one of the graphic poems has a multi-hexagonal structure that could be beautiful in itself but is actually a poem mimicking the chemical bond structure of one of the major constituent chemicals found in the tar sands on Treaty 8 land.
These poems also highlight some of the treaty document’s strategic grammar and word choices – compositional tricks that try to put the mind to sleep. I have a poem that is built only from the “heretofores,” “therebys,” “hereinafters” and their many relatives from Treaty 5. I have a poem of the result of translating Treaty 7 into Blackfoot and then back to English with a two hour limit (mimicking the poor quality of the translation provided at the signing of Treaty 7 by Jerry Potts, who was mostly drunk at the time – the poor quality of his translation is still remarked upon today by Blackfoot elders). I have a poem that focuses on the articles and nouns used in Treaty 8.
“White Noise,” the long poem that ends X, could be called an anti-beauty poem. This poem is constructed from language taken from my review of 15,283 public comments posted in response to online news articles over a forty day period during Idle No More and the start and end of the hunger strike of Theresa Spence, Chief of the Attawapiskat First Nations reserve. Beyond just a collection of cranks and internet trolls, the collected commentary shows a glimpse of what Canadians think, if they think at all, about Canada’s Aboriginal peoples and land rights. The poem is simultaneously funny, disgusting, poignant, and sad to read (that it can be all these things speaks to the power that found poetry can have when coupled with technological advances that allow a wholesale sampling of public discourse). It is not beautiful in the least yet for all the yelling, screaming, threats and name-calling, there are small moments of quiet, emotional truth that stand out all the more powerfully for all the detritus in which they are placed. One passage of the poem documents all the names that were given to Chief Theresa Spence – almost all were very derogatory, focusing on either her race, gender, weight or a combination of the three. Yet, after a page of disgusting language that I was almost loath to construct, I found one comment that both tied it all together and unraveled some of the hate: “if she did not exist / they would have to invent her”.
3. Do you hope for, look toward, seek out beauty in other aspects of your life?
I’m wary of beauty and how it can be used to override logic. I’ve become particularly sensitive to this through my work with the treaties and other documents; the fact that I work in government considerably strengthens this sensitivity (the same sort of distrust one sees in a writer, but also a lawyer working in government, like M. NourbeSe Philip). One example illustrative of this caution is the Government of Canada’s Apology for the Residential School System. When the Government issued an apology from the House of Commons, many people were rightfully pleased that a Prime Minister had finally come out and said that wrong had been committed that had irrevocably harmed Aboriginal people in Canada. Many people, an not just those who actually beat the residential school system, were moved to tears. This was an important statement for people and the statement, with its combining of English with Indigenous languages, was elegant and maybe even beautiful in its contrition and admission of wrong – justice as beauty (isn’t this the attraction of all apologies?).
Yet I think this is also a great illustration of the danger of beautiful words: they can dazzle us with their rightness yet they can also mask or divert our attention away from what is actually going on around us. In the same breath as apologizing for the residential school system, the Government was cancelling the Kelowna Accord, planning changes to the Indian Act without consultation, planning to reduce the protection of Canada’s waterways, and cancelling First Nations language programs, and likely putting in plans to introduce the First Nations Accountability Act. In the same breath as the Government was apologizing for past wrongs, they were doing nothing about the epidemic of murdered Aboriginal women happening right now.
All of this is to say that it is easy to become enamored with the production of beautiful language and the ceremony of its performance. Governments and large corporations are particularly good at this – we call it propaganda but I think that makes it sound too specialized as it is a strategy used in many subtle ways that might not meet that jingoist threshold. In art, I think it is imperative to understand how our ability to make beautiful language can also divert attention away from the ugliness in the world around us. Throughout history and in the present, we can see art used again and again as diversionary tactic. I’m not saying that every poem has to be a realist examination of social ills, but good art, complex art, seems knowledgeable about how it is consumed and about the society in which it takes place and that this must, in some way, be part of the artistic production and product itself.
4. You seem to have dueling concerns: a worry about language that’s so deliberately ugly that it repulses, acts as a kind of force field repelling possible critics of the policies it outlines, and on the other hand a worry about language so beautiful that it’s a distraction from some of the ugly conditions under which we live. Both ugly language and beautiful language seem to be problematic in their own ways. What’s a linguistic creature to do?
If I have a worry here, it is that the quest for beauty in language, in art, in poetry so often over-rides the importance of ugliness in language, in art, in poetry. It is just as important to search out and study the ugliness (and, sometime, to look at the ugliness of what beautiful language can create) as it is to look for those instances of beauty. This is especially true when looking at issues like colonization, anti-indigenousness, and racism – there isn’t much beauty here, but there is a whole lot of ugliness.
So often we are led on by ideas of beauty and deterred or stopped by ideas of ugliness and disgust – but it is important to think of how these terms can be politically motivated and used. Colonization has very real psychological manifestations in any settler society; one of these manifestations is an unwillingness in the settler to look realistically at the injustices of our histories and current actions in the name of settlement. In Canada, who wants to read the treaties? Who wants to read the Indian Act? Who wants to look at such blatant racism? All of these texts are ugly; they are ugly because they rub against the beautiful myths we have created of our just and peaceful society.
Shane Rhodes is the author of five books of poetry including his most recent, X (Nightwood Editions). Shane is the poetry editor for Arc, Canada’s national poetry magazine.