My Favorite Poem in “Forage” by Rita Wong

I’ve always been a supreme fan of poetry. Having written my own shitty verses for decades now, I took a scholastic approach in college and spent a long time learning about post-modern poetry and the various veins of expression that modern poets took.

The idea of poetry strikes me as the highest form of language. It takes all the pieces of language that matter: context, sound, rhythm, pace, emotion, truth, shape, form, purpose, and places them into a package where all of the beauty of words can be experienced in one place.

Rita Wong is a Canadian poet who has authored several collections of note. Her words take a very semantic dissection of heavy topics such as the environment, social justice, decolonization, and the way in which human beings can take words and assemble them in a poetic fashion to elicit emotional truths and evoke change through a unity of experience.

In her words:

“A poem can begin with a feeling, a word, a sound, an experience, an intuition. I tend to write short bits that accumulate over time. There are recurring obsessions and themes, though they are not always conscious when I begin writing.”

This approach to gathering your thoughts as they spring up in your mind instead of trying to force ideas to flow freely is akin to my own creative process. When I sit down and “try” to write, nothing comes. I can spew out very robotic, calculated phrases, but it doesn’t pour from me organically the way it does when a certain kind of muse strikes me.

Her second collection, Forage, (from which I’m taking the poem “resuscitate” to talk about here) criticizes the way western society uses force and power politics while taking the time to work in various poetic styles to reinforce her points.

In the margins, you’ll find pictures and quotes that help reiterate the points of the poetry and also give a historical and modern look at the state of countries rebuilding themselves from within after decolonization and the wills of power-hungry people. It takes special care to explain the pitfalls and lingering effects these dynamic shifts can have on a populace and an individual, from self-identity to self-worth.

The poem opens with an immediate death metaphor, but also draws me into a sort of romantic sensibility or a cry to a lover to fit into a certain mold:

“could sleep for centuries until you break my skin, draw up my mutinous juices, could lie fallow and expectant, dormant through winters of discontent, seasons of ceaseless rain, could be graphed and quartered and undergo the hand of cartographers until the northern lights dim with exhaustion,…”

The speaker is talking about being docile and overly-accommodating. The term “fallow” being used to invoke the period that a field is plowed and left unsown in order to restore its fertility. The speaker will weather the storm of unsatisfying love and affection and lay dormant until those “mutinous juices” or the gas fire of opinion and life-bringing energy wells up inside once again.

The “hand of cartographers” implies the unfair mapping, categorizing, and “quartering” or disassembling of her body and identity at the hands of an onlooker. It makes me visualize a judge applying regions to someone’s sense of self without their agency.

“…still you might never appear in the incarnation i desire, the precise contour of resolve and steadfast sinew i seek to anchor my sororitas surges, my maternal imperatives, my infant divinations, are you hurricane or torrent, engineer’s shovel or crane’s lament?”

The speaker is disappointed in someone’s position in their life. The need for someone to be resolute, strong, and able to wrangle feelings of sisterhood, motherhood, and child-like assumptions is communicated bluntly.

Asking “are you hurricane or torrent, engineer’s shovel or crane’s lament?” breaks down a question of accountability and power. A hurricane is a force of unbridled energy while a torrent is contained and controlled into a useful stream of energy instead of shapeless mass. An engineer’s shovel is a useful metaphor for describing intent and deliberate action instead of a crane’s lament which is movement under the control of another.

This particular part of the poem always resonated with me because it is a question that all humans must contend with. Are we masters of our own destiny in the driver’s seat or are we simply the tools of someone more powerful and influential than ourselves and we’re driven solely by the need to please them?

The poem ends with extremely poignant imagery of the mark that humankind can leave on the world:

“…could wrap our spent bodies into the textures of igneous, sediment, underground streams until the crows and ravens chatter distress in suburban neighbourhoods, in hopes our porous husks feed hunters, gatherers, compassionate world-eaters”

Is all the trying worth it? We all end up used up, encased in stone, our energy flowing through underground streams. Our only worth comes when the crows and ravens in suburban neighborhoods speak our names and our tragedies, an allusion to the way that world crises only seem to become a matter worth talking about once they reach white, wealthy, western areas.

The speaker’s final hope is that their porous husks, their fragile forms, will leave some lasting and positive impact on the next wave of men who consume the planet for their means, assuming they have compassionate intent.

The liner of the page reads:

“I would rather unleash fire than have fire unleash me.” – Richard Van Camp

This quote sums up the feeling of the poem very succinctly. We are to be the agents of our self-identity, self-worth, and the impact we have on the world around us. It is not for tragedy and unexpected horrors to shape us, but for us to unleash the explosive force within before we let it take control. We are the masters of our own perspective.

I hope you enjoyed reading this poetry treatment as much as I did writing it and I highly recommend picking up this book of poetry, if you’re interested in the subject matter.