Review of Wong and Wah’s Beholden: a poem as long as a river

Let’s talk about poetry …

or, rather, let’s behold some creative writing …


…in place:

Cougar Point, Cascadia

Creative writing is a cultural practice, engaged in by a group of practitioners called creative writers, who apply their intelligence, training and skills to various raw materials and situations of the world in order to make books, films and other cultural objects based around scripts for reading, performance or viewing, which are expressions of the free, individual intelligence of its cultural practitioners. Craft and social engagement are important languages with which to engage this practice as “readers,” as this practice builds from concepts of who has the authority to speak, and what the role of the self is in addressing the boundaries of social and physical experience involved. In other words, this is class-based work., But, don’t take it from me. Here’s Wikipedia weighing in on the subject:

Creative writing can technically be considered any writing of original composition. In this sense, creative writing is a more contemporary and process-oriented name for what has been traditionally called literature, including the variety of its genres. In her work, Foundations of Creativity, Mary Lee Marksberry references Paul Witty and Lou LaBrant’s Teaching the People’s Language to define creative writing. Marksberry notes:

Note that this is a social definition. If it is expanded to include non-human society, it cracks. This cracking interests Wong and Wah.

Wikipedia doesn’t comment on the notions of power and privilege involved in this creative process. Wong and Wah do. They also embody it, which is a bind, for sure. Bravely, they attempt to solve this tangled knot by allowing “the river” physical space in the book, a kind of singularity, a kind of single line of poetry written on the skin of the world. So to speak. That’s cool, although that approach can only go so far. This “river” is a word-object, which is to say it is bound with a particular language as understood by a particular class of practitioners in a particular time. It is not this:

The Icicle Fishery on the Washaptum

aka Owhi’s Illahie

aka, a photograph, stripped of its context in time and space, similarly to Beholden. You can tell by the borders to the image and its two-dimensional form, with the illusion of three dimensions, and certainly not four or five.

Beholden is, in other words, the story of two people not native to what they view as a river beholding it, its people and their stories, and immersing their bodies into the physical manifestations, such as “water” and “trains” and “diesel” which they view and experience in and along this “river.” The result is a powerful extension of a creative act, which readers can approach with an energy similar to that with which Wah and Wong approached the energy of Cascadia as it flowed through the English concept of “river.” Nonetheless, for all of its honesty and approaches to multi-dimensionality, this offering comes at some cost. For example, the river is amputated from its physical life, given a new form within new parameters (first, the word “river” and second, a book, as a representation of human cognitive, social and bodily space), and viewed as a line extending in time from source to dissolution in a vast “all” (aka. the sea at Cape Disappointment).

The US Army Corps of Engineers Breakwater That Attempts to Control the Columbia’s Entrance into the Pacific

And a view of its southern arm.

It is a fraught, poetic crossing.

It is not really dissolution into a vast sea. That’s a culturally specific concept. The river as much climbs to the sky as falls from it. The salmon know it that way.

Nkmp sockeye at sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ after long journey.

What is left is a series of logs (sawed-off sections of “river”) floating down the stream of time, that one can page through as a representation of a continuum and which eventually becomes one. Well, so are books, as representations of a reader’s immersion into their form and a suspension of its boundaries. It is also the quintessential form of American poetry: the physical going-to-a-place-outside-of-oneself, the meeting-with-the-physical-other, the philosophical-and-spiritual-contextualization, and, eventually, the dissolution-in-a-physical-and-spiritual-image-or-gestalt. Here’s an example from the magazine of American culture in Cascadia, Cascadian Magazine, Fiona Lam’s Ode to a Crow:

Those are a few of the cultural practices that Wah and Wong represent as they walk to “the river” and bring us to their walking-to-the-river. One has to suspend one’s disbelief and just go with the flow, knowing that before this project hit the page format, it was one continuous roll…

Note that it is not meant to be “read” but to be viewed as an honoured body-object, all at once. One walks around it and beholds.

…which is delightful, although, perhaps not integrative. But that’s not what we have. We have the log boom. Here’s one of the logs.



In the middle left, you’re looking at this:

Native American Replacement Fishery, Bonneville Dam

On the crease, this:

Beacon Rock

This is the head of salt water on the Columbia, far, far, far from the sea. It is also one of the most ancient village sites in Cascadia. This history is not recorded in site. It is also not part of the story of Beholden, which is about attraction and about staying-in-the-moment-of-coming-to. Any other history is considered the property of others. We’ll come back to that later.

In a previous age of the world, the composer Bela Bartok used a similar process when he went out among the peasants …

… of his native Romania (and the Hungary it was a part of)…

… transcribed their music, then set it into a courtly form suitable for the intellectual traditions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


In other words, he played them on a piano, in a concert hall.


Note the similarity in form between Bartók’s score and Wong & Wah’s Score for performance.


Both are only scripts.

This performance extends deep into social space. It is not neutral. In an even earlier age of the world, a near-army of ethnographers went out among the peoples of the band of energy called Cascadia, in which this book gives the illusion of being set. The river the poem approaches, in its own way, lays claim to the 12,000-year-old glacial meltwater of my home …

No Name is Needed

…which flows, eventually, into it. The water below, which you see here a few kilometres west…


Priest Valley, Cascadia

… does not. That’s cheatgrass which burns blue water away and sagebrush which holds it in place and doesn’t release it to “the river.” For those living here, it is bound in the same flow. For those who come with the concept of “river” it is a completely different concept: “hill.” We shouldn’t be surprised that this embedded life is not in Wah & Wong’s script. Look at the title. It’s honest:

See that? It’s not the water or the river at all. It’s a long poem in the way a river is long. It is a performance about performance. It is creative writing. Like this:

It’s not a poem as deep or wide as the river, because then it would look like this image of the same reach:

The Wanapum Illahie on a Smoky Day

Illahie is a Cascadian form of mapping and social organization based upon kinship structures bound with story and identity-as-the-land-and-water. In part, Beholden is an attempt to replicate this living-in-depth-and-social-unity-with-all-being for human-consciousnesses-living-within-industrial-culture. Note: Wanapum = The River People.

Neither is Beholden as wide as the river. It doesn’t include the glorious White Bluffs you see above, which are as much the river as its water, or the sacred Wanapum homelands within the stream, and which sheltered the Yakama (and Father Charles Pandosy) during the Yakima War, and it doesn’t include the water coming from the south, at Chief Joseph’s old salmon camp in the Snake River Canyon, where the Nimiipu’u gave Lewis and Clarke’s expedition precious spring salmon to keep them alive through their folly.

The Salmon Entering the Snake

My pilot said that the camp on the far shore, and all the canyon, were not used by Joseph’s people. Remember that: the history of the river is not part of the contemporary river. Beholden attempts to correct this.

The width of the river — all the rivers that are the splayed veins of the salmon land — is not in the book. The water below, twelve hours from twining itself with the main stream of Cascadia, is not in the book:


The water below joins the water above at the Forks, just south of So’yoos. This image is of the last intact sockeye fishery in the salmon country of this great desert river. It is not in this book.


It is not that kind of a book. The authors of Beholden made a decision: they would write about the Great Basin of the West by its colonial name, The Columbia, and would exclude the other runs that are part of this body. That is manageable, and books need to be manageable, else they are as large as the world. It is, however, also a colonial conception. It is “river,” not, for one example, the many names the river was known by to its many different peoples, who traditionally saw it as a stretch of interlocking regions and not a line. Still, a line it is because that fits a colonial conception, which just happens to be the one we live in. It is not a web of rivers, just one. Fair enough. One has to make a choice, in order to make a representation. What’s more, this flow….

… is not only reduced to a single colonial line of water, but is literally straightened out and flattened out:

The Okanogan Enters the Columbia

Because of the limitations of the book, the river must proceed in a direct line from left to right, from its source to the sea. It is a book.

Here’s the scene that the authors of Beholden turned into the image above:


Wah was especially struck by the railroads that run along the river. They sure do!


Look at the two rail lines of words running along the river in the book:

Each Word is a Rail Car

It is also a salmon. This is a cognitive conception, not a visceral one. Viscerally, one is struck by the simplistic form of the winding along, as if one were writing lines in penance on a school chalkboard.

The book makes it clear that the authors are accepting the river as it is. That obviously contains the colonial imprint I mention. That’s admirable. They are clear that they have approached the river with the gift of their presence and have left with words, in the hope that this clarity will help the salmon people bring the salmon back. I hope so, too. Here is one of the salmon people, on Horsethief Butte, above the old salmon camp at Celilo Falls, where 40,000 people came every summer.

The Sun Comes to Life at Horsethief Butte

It is not in the book.

But, let’s come clean. By asking for the book to connect to the world it uses as a metaphor, I’m not following the rules. The polite etiquette of literature and how it is used in courtly culture says I should speak of the book as a text and a series of deliberate textual strategies, including two long lines that run the length of the river without break, and its premise that the river is a place where social and physical worlds meet, a place that has content, which is the true subject of discussion. All that is true, but the book is also a social work. It is about humans and their relationships, and makes the plea for relationships that extend beyond those parameters. It doesn’t embody such relationships, however. It calls for them. It is also careful to draw a line between Wong’s culture (perhaps she means settler culture) and Ktunaxa culture (perhaps she means pan-indigenous culture), like this:

I think what she means is that if people who are not the people of the river are to come to the river, and if they are human people and not Sen’klip’s or Itseyehyeh’s or Spillyay’s…

Mrs. Coyote Out Fetching Groceries in Priest Valley

…or any of the other people of the river …

The Inundated River at Daisy

…those who have come have an ethical responsibility to the river and its people to take direction from the people who were there first, including the river. That’s wise. Wong and Wah don’t necessarily make it easy, though. For one thing, Wong insists on speaking with the pronoun “we”, which means she is not creating a book for indigenous people but only for those who are coming to the flow as “the river” and not to those who are not or to those who “are the flow” or even “the river.” This is a social gesture, in other words. It is an acceptance of a colonial past, yet divides people on a colonial line. Wong holds this to be deeply respectful. I find it troubling. People who are this place start from this place. They don’t “come to it.” The book’s argument that this be-ing comes in the fulfilment of the river as “this stream of words become the surf and now the River’s voice is free to roar within the sound of silence” (Wah) or “the river taking over the page as the ocean accepts the river” (Wong) is still a colonial conception and a representation of the long, flattened out river in place of the stream of energy it carries, or a text that unites the capitalization of the flow with the flow under the concept of “river”, as it is in the colonial world. It is, likely, an inescapable bind. And there’s this:

I hate those dams, too, yet any of the people of the river, including the salmon, might have pointed out that the eastern bank of the Wells Dam was built on Colville Territory. As a payout for this theft, the Colville Federated Tribes are now selling nearly 20% of the power produced by the dam, and are using the profits to rebuild salmon stocks up and down the Columbia and its lower tributaries, including in British Columbia. This is not easy stuff.

Sturgeon Fishing on the Plutonium Manufacturing Shore

History is bound up with it, and social relations, as Wong points out, but if the goal is to be with the river and her people, let’s do that without drawing lines between people, or assuming power as authors or sturgeon fishermen. The very thought that an author has some kind of power that is brought from a distance, meets the river, responds subconsciously to it, and leaves with guidance for both the river’s people and those who have not yet met the river is colonial, even if authorial intentions are the opposite. Wong and Wah might have created a less linear river, that allowed them to reach out to people and conceptions of land, power and water that differ from the narrative that disturbs them so much. It disturbs all of us. Let’s be fair, though. Wah and Wong wrestled with these issues admirably in Beholden. Their project provides a model for extending the form of “the book” and even dissolving it, which would be most welcome. It also provides a warning about the power of physical choices, right down to the level of word (“river”, for instance) and design (wavy type design, for example) to become the message itself in unintended ways. The book wrestles with important social choices, ones of respect. Ultimately, it embodies them, yet its choices also embody disrespect. That bind might be what Christian theologians and 19th and 20th century philosophers called “the human condition,” but there are paths out of it. The first step would be to get away from “beholding,” as the process of this project did, its gallery representation did, and enter the dialogue from within. I hope that through my social gaffe of challenging the wise and carefully-considered choices of two culturally-powerful and accomplished writers within colonial Canadian society I have in some small way contributed to that extension of this energy or at least given you the interest to go and experience this great energy band that is, as the Beholden project demonstrates, a lot more than “the river,” a concept which it approaches and then ultimately dismisses, because the book, and its writers, have left it behind, as good writers should. We leave it to its people.

Stag Swimming to N-Reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation

But let’s remember that we are the people of this energy, with full social responsibility, and not leave on a beautiful romantic image. The reactors are only moth-balled (they could be brought online again in a matter of only a few months, and once again the river would be forced to produce explosive poison), and “the river” is still a machine, that still stands in the way of our life.

Here’s my post on that from 2011.

2 replies »

    • Much to get me into trouble, I think! But that’s me, jump right on in. Rob McLennan did nothing more than comment on the long line of the poem. That was it. I wanted to write this review as a coyote story. Perhaps the next one! I have some poetry books to review. Gotta find a new way! I’ll keep you posted.



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