To begin. The same week I read this book I also read some editorials directly connected to the material & political engagements of Rhodes’ text, X (Nightwood Editions, 2013). From a letter (unpublished) to the editor of the Sioux Lookout Bulletin by my brother, lawyer, Simon Owen, regarding his abiding concern with the way the First Nations peoples in his town are treated by the courts: “It is not my place to share individual stories, but perhaps my experience as a lawyer can help shed some light on the fundamental challenge facing an institution that includes the word ‘Justice’ in its title. It is a concept that, for me, implies fairness, equality, and inclusiveness of the many variables and perspectives that embody and inform the facts and law of any conflict. Meeting the challenge of justice, for all of us who enter through the doors of a criminal court, requires deep resources of time, attentiveness to different voices, and the cultivation of dignities that may lie buried beneath the shock of trauma or the slow throb of suffering.”
What struck me among many things when reading Simon’s letters was the emphasis on how words mean, should mean, don’t mean along with the need for multiplicity when dealing with complex issues instead of a narrow, rigid, limited modus that refuses to take individual narratives into account. This ethics of diverse approach also compelled me in Rhodes’ collection X.
What Shines: The project itself. In a recent interview with Lemon Hound on Beauty, Rhodes notes he wants, in X, to “focus on the ugliness of language” in relation to treaties signed between the 1870s and the 1920s, to ”highlight some of the treaty document’s strategic grammar and word choices – compositional tricks that try to put the mind to sleep,” and to address “issues like colonization, anti-indigenousness, and racism – [where] there isn’t much beauty…but there is a whole lot of ugliness.” The antithesis of putting the mind to sleep, Rhodes’ range of lexical manipulations serve as experiments to oppose devastation, shaking ups of what we have become inured to so that we can, essentially, re-enter sites of amnesia and re-collect inscriptions that initiated suffering. As much as I adore beauty and aesthetically “perfect” poems, such an approach would not be appropriate for Rhodes’ ambition: to awaken his readers to the ways language has been abused to use and thus to make it, to re-phrase William Carlos Williams, “easier to get the news from poems” by instigating a range of ways to not just remember the origins of colonization in Canada but to absorb it once again at a more rupturing level.
Visually, the sharply-designed book offers a darkly pleasing engagement with artifact, silhouette, and typography. Scarred with facts and constantly undulating with shifting forms, X offers the variousness that stems from a necessary ache to communicate, starting with the seemingly divisive subtitle: Poems & Anti-poems, suggesting that the pieces can be read either way or both at once as a counter to the muteness of the singular alphabetical signature-replacement. As one line goes: “It was a silence I could not speak until I had mastered the language of silence.” I loved the section Preoccupied Space, with its visual river flowing with immigration stories, “fonts of power” which foregrounds our mind’s malleability as the relationship to knowledge alters based on the simplest of decisions such as which font the text is couched in, the Beckettian “as may have been grunted” with its empty discourse, the humour of the copulating beavers dialoguing in “Pro Pelle,” “Check against delivery” which strings text from the Harper government’s pseudo-apology into a halting poem, and the last vital compilation, White Noise, “material harvested from 15 283 public comments posted in response to fifty-five online news articles” on the Idle No More protest, a piece both shocking and moving in similar fashion to Rhodes’ AIDS patient sequence in Err. Data reconfigured to offer different doors into what must be felt and the horror and the banality of its instantiations, its delivery. Words as infected blankets.
What Stumbles: For me, when Rhodes becomes too visually tricky, as with “mining, lumbering, trading” or “circle the wagons: in ink” I find the information difficult to connect to, perhaps because the book itself must be turned & twisted to read the words. This is likely another required discombobulation of Rhodes’ project but it felt overly fussy and presented this reader with too many barricades for approach. Similarly, the black box listing generating stations partially overlaying the text in “groundless” or the randomly capped letters of “where there is oil” are examples where the experiment overpowered the emotional attention required for the content. As he offers many approaches to the material, some may obviously work better for certain readers than others.
What it Echoes: Poetically, Sachiko Murakami, Steve Collis, Roger Farr, Greg Scofield, Christian Bok. I don’t think I want to compare this book to art, movies or food today