beholden: a poem as long as the river
rita wong & fred wah
In this collaborative text from former Parliamentary Poet Laureate Fred Wah and poet-activist Rita Wong, the Columbia River is given a voice to express its complicated life as breathing waterway and hydroelectric conduit. Wah and Wong each compose a single poem and entwine these lines with a complete topographical map of the river from headwaters to ocean. While Wah’s attention centres on what he calls the "isness" of the water body (“The thing that exists is itself. That’s what we need to pay attention to”), Wong’s poem is preoccupied with a full account of the river and the life which so intimately depends on it (“Catfish in the reach & leak of radioactive Hanford bumping up cancer counts alongside and downstream the news that travels through”). Each page has only a portion of words from each poem alongside the map and so reading can feel a bit like how you experience the river itself, in small sections, listening to what it can teach. This is a stunning book that reminds us the Columbia has a “dignity that cannot be taken away, not by the buzz of wires, not by the hum of highway, not by induced amnesia, because water remembers.”
This review was originally written for publication in Coast Mountain Culture. Like many businesses they were hit pretty hard by COVID-19. Pick up one of their back issues to support an independent BC publisher dedicated to telling stories about the Cascadia region.