Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Shane Neilson : Coast Mountain Foot, by Ryan Fitzpatrick

Ryan Fitzpatrick’s Rocky Mountain Opportunity: Coast Mountain Foot (Talonbooks, 2021) Abdicated Addressing Its Own Origins in Whiteness


[Editor's note: After this review was posted, the author of the piece admitted via twitter that this rather scathing review was deliberately composed as a prank tied to an argument he was making on his paywalled newsletter. I don't care for any prank, critical or otherwise, that exists at the expense of a writer or their work. I had presumed, somehow, that despite my disagreement with the argument presented, that it had been done thoughtfully, and in good faith. Apparently this was not the case. I leave the review standing as an example of the kind of review I no longer wish to publish, encourage or solicit.]






The bumpf of Coast Mountain Foot (CMF) bumpf explains the genesis of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s project: it “was written amid booms and busts through the messy perspectives of [Vancouver and Calgary] as they bleed into one another, refracting the gesture of George Bowering’s 1968 classic, Rocky Mountain Foot.” Cunning refraction can result in purposeful obscuration, though. It is with this point in mind that I shall interrogate Fitzpatrick’s choice of inspiration, Bowering, and refract its gestures of whiteness as they did not bleed into CMF.

Bowering’s book has been celebrated by SFU grad Allesandra Capperdoni as offering a “critical analysis of the insidious ways in which neoliberal ideology has entered Canada’s social and political stage through a ‘politics of space’ that relies upon, rather than disintegrates, the ‘absolute space’ produced by nationalist politics.” Rocky Mountain Foot may have met community standards of contemporary tolerance when Capperdoni’s paper was published in 2014, but surely anyone reading this sentence in 2021, due to the imperative of anti-racism in literary studies existing within the backdrop of ongoing Indigenous cultural genocide, might wonder if Bowering should have done more in 1968 than offer mere resistance to neoliberal ideology. It is as if he was unaware that neoliberal logic is always in conversation with other forms of oppression.

Is it wise to valorize in 2021, as Capperdoni does in 2014, a beloved (former) figure of the Canadian avant garde despite his eager subscription to a road too much taken in Canadian poetry, the Nature Poetry of Whiteness? The circumstance of CMF and its choice of inspiration is made even stranger when one considers that Fitzpatrick himself is on record on this point concerning another Canadian poet. When reviewing John Donlan’s Out All Day, he writes, “This poem leaves me wondering about Donlan’s invocation of an ‘us’ that he’s not necessarily included in and how that question of freedom is connected to his considerations of ecology. What would happen if nature poetry critically addressed its own whiteness?” That same provocation could very much apply to Rocky Mountain Foot. For her part, Capperdoni suggests that an adequate basis in anti-racism is afoot: “Playing with the lyric mode of poetic vision and the serial structure of postmodern poetry a la Spicer, the poetic sequence Rocky Mountain Foot disassembles the landscape machine of the picturesque and the sublime of nationalist poetry by showing their imperial logic.” But as anyone knows, imperial logics are fundamentally structured by and around racism, and Capperdoni has little to say on the nexus between racism and colonialism because Bowering resolutely operates within the zone of whiteness, writing from within that familiar and staid old paradigm of nationalist Canadian literature.

The problems with appropriation and stolen land begin from the outset of Bowering’s dedication, characteristically christened a “non-dedication” from this Black Mountaineer:

No dedication is necessary,
but I would like to say hello to:

Chief Walking Eagle
Bob Edwards
Sitting Bull

Jabez Harry Bowering

(They were all there)

Let me do the anti-racist work that Fitzpatrick should have done as an ally and unpack Bowering’s non-dedication a little. The first of these names is somewhat obscure to a Google search, though Chief Walking Eagle – also known as Morley Beaver – seems to have truly been Indigenous based on this web entry, though my research here is admittedly quite cursory. Sitting Bull (Hunkpapa Lakota), of course, was a remarkable leader who resisted American colonization, including his involvement in the victory over Custer at Little Bighorn. He resided in southern Saskatchewan for a time because of pressure from U.S. authorities, which is presumably why Bowering felt it proper to invoke him. The other names in the list, though, are a different matter and they nicely bring into view Bowering’s whiteness problem.

Bob Edwards is a white-sounding name, although I wouldn’t know for sure. (You can imagine what a Google search turns up: white male after white male, infinite face after puffy face.) Jabez Harry Bowering is a known quantity, however. Judy Stoffman in the Literary Review of Canada fills us in: Bowering’s “first truly successful poem, ‘Grandfather’ (included in thirty-­one anthologies at last count), draws on a visit to see his snowy-­haired grandfather, ‘whipt out of England’ as a twelve-year-old orphan. Jabez Bowering built ‘children & churches’ across the prairies”. Thus Bowering, at the front of his text, deploys (at least) two Indigenous names alongside two white names, including the name of a man who actively contributed to the ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples by erecting structures intended to colonize them through Christianity, a man related to Bowering himself! Thus how can Rocky Mountain Foot be justified as a source text in 2021 for any poet? Why, for example, did Bowering not write against systemic racism and cultural genocide in 1968? Why is there an implicit false equivalency made between a truly historic figure like Sitting Bull and the generic Bob Edwards? Indeed, why is an explicit equivalency drawn when Bowering says “[t]hey were all there”? The answer can only be the privileged ignorance of whiteness. Surely Bowering understands that Chief Walking Eagle, if part of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, was part of Treaty 7? This dishonest treaty deprived Indigenous peoples the use of, and sovereignty over, their land. To claim that the most important fact of the non-dedication was the co-extensive existence of four names in the vicinity of the Rockies is irresponsible in the extreme, especially in the face of cultural genocide.[1]

Problems continue in Rocky Mountain Foot. One of the epigraphs is from Ed Dorn, who wrote the The Soshoneans: The People of the Basin-Plateau (1967), a book of flagrant cultural appropriation about the Soshone. Moreover, Dorn was a homophobic garbage person who created the “Aids Award for Poetry” in 1983, bestowing the prize upon Dennis Cooper, Clayton Eshleman, Robert Creeley, Steve Abbot, and Allen Ginsberg. A more fulsome description of this egregious act is warranted. The following is transcribed from Diarmud Hester’s Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper:

In 1983 Rolling Stock, a cultural newspaper published in Boulder, Colorado, by Black Mountain poet Ed Dorn and his wife, Jennifer, announced in their fifth issue the winners of the 1983 AIDS Awards for Poetry. In recognition of what the editors and their collaborator Tom Clark called “AN EPIDEMIC OF IDIOCY on the poetry scene,” awardees were offered a prize, large and luridly depicted on the page: a beaker of blood, presumably contaminated with the AIDS virus, its infected contents overflowing. “To date 1300 cases of AIDS POETRY have been reported in the U.S.,” read the caption.

That Bowering quoted from Dorn 15 years before Dorn outed himself as a raging homophobe is not the problem. That he quoted from Dorn after the wildly appropriative text The Shoshoneans is another matter. The problem is that neither the egregiously homophobic moment or the gross cultural appropriation is not recognized or interrogated in a book in 2021 that overtly models itself after Rocky Mountain Foot. How is Ryan Fitzpatrick an ally to Indigenous peoples of this land that we whites call Canada? How is he an ally to intersectional identities like Two-Spirit Indigenous people?   

Alas, these aren’t the only problems to be found in Bowering’s serially troublesome book. For example, there is the “disappearing Indian” trope:

That is the earth, the earth
that promoted flowers before men came,

that lay in a firm hold of grass
before the dust-belching tractors,

the hate-belching preachers,
the greedy hands of chiropracters (sic).

The earth, brown footpath to the mountains,
how it must have lookt,

with bushes, airy burst of trees,
birds among them, buffalo guarded, unguarded,

great herds or family groups,
no fences, no great oil-sucking machines

(. . .)

None of this: earth, sky, water, fire
in the sky at night, that’s all,

untold millennia gone by,
unbelievable tons of snow, floods of spring,

bury this present enormity
in a second of time,

apply the soft sticking lips
of the past, spew this away,

leave a troublesome scar for
the future industry of the sunflower . . .

The ancestral stewards of the land are where, exactly, in this representation? Are we to believe that the land was unpopulated before settlers came? When Bowering does do the work of direct representation, things are no better. Indigenous people are like the ones in his poem “indians in calgary”, which reads in its entirety:

On Saturday afternoon
they walk, bow-legged jeans
down sidewalks of hippy bell bottoms.

The Indians are skinny, gloves placed
in their back pockets.

Their style reflects from the shop
windows, a gust of narrow
mountain wind

among the steel haystacks.

For whom is Bowering writing? What is his purpose? Is he doing anti-racist work? Is he calling for land back? Or is he merely decorating his book’s frame of oblivious whiteness with Indigenous bodies that are vague, “indian” only in name? What’s with the bottom of the same page just quoted, where this intertextual quote appears: “There’s a man who can ride him – an Indian named Tom Three Persons. But he’s in jail.” Indians are ghostly deracinated presences on city streets – or they’re in jail?

Despite its blatant deficiencies, the stalwart Capperdoni tries to cast the book as somehow progressive on an anti-racism / stolen land front:

The near extermination of the buffalo, co-terminous with indigenous economy, has paved the way for the defacement of the land, now turned into energy reservoir for Canada’s (and increasingly North America’s) industrialization engine. . . [Bowering] reminds readers not only of the systemic dispossession that makes ‘development’ and ‘progress’ possible, but the ongoing debt that the nation-state owes Native people. In light of the grievances of Aboriginal peoples and the ressentiment voiced through increasing political action at the present time, this debt begs for something more than an empty gesture of reconciliation or healing: Are we willing to return the land to its original inhabitants? Which measures are we willing to adopt to redress historical injustices?

Indeed, these are the key questions to ask any contemporary poetics context, and I am glad Capperdoni asked them. As can be seen from the quotations provided, Bowering in 1968 is aware of none of these questions and Capperdoni seems to know this, for the sentence that follows the block quote above is: “Meanwhile, the poetic eye can only witness and document the ongoing transformation of land and place into a space for consumption”, a statement followed by a deflationary Bowering fragment that develops the Cadillac automobile as icon of capitalism amidst the backdrop of the Rockies.

Is witness all the poetic eye can do in the face of stolen land? Can the poetic eye not do anti-racist work? Can it not demand that the stolen land be returned? Bowering’s abdication surely requires unpacking in any derivative text that wears its awareness of whiteness on its sleeve, as Ryan Fitzpatrick’s CMF is and does. Consider CMF’s “The Energy in These Streets”:

Nenshi wins
in a squeaker
against Bill Smith[2]

(a faceless
conservative flack
preaching low taxes).

The guy
I’m next to
pipes up:

“Don’t people
like that
East Indian guy?

Like, he gets
what Calgarians
seem to be about.”

There’s a
weird tension
in that.

In the way
Nenshi’s set up
as not Calgarian

but also
a positive force
for Calgarians.

But the guy’s
legitimately happy
to meet me –

another person
from Alberta
(he’s from Edmonton).

A bizarre
race-swapped refraction
of that scene

in Dionne Brand’s
A Map to the
Door of No Return

where she
and a friend
find kinship

with the driver
and a
Salish woman

through forms
of relation found
in spatial loss.

Except all
I get
is discomfort

(. . .)

though I get
there’s no
way to divest

from automatically
beneficial structures
of whiteness.

Doesn’t CMF enact the beneficial structure of whiteness by piggybacking on a beloved white figure of the (former) Canadian poetry avant garde, George Bowering? Despite its name-dropping of whiteness, the interior of CMF is a strangely evacuated zone, one that doesn’t take Bowering to task. As it happens, the only George that Fitzpatrick mentions inside CMF is George Vancouver:

Robert Bateman
too political
for city hall,

but when does
George Vancouver’s
statue come down?

He stands
on the steps
of city hall,

looking like
he discovered

Toppling a memorial to colonialism is important work, but isn’t dismantling capitalist projects that participate in systemic racism like Rocky Mountain Foot equally important? Remember: Bowering’s text was published by the then-overwhelmingly white-authored McClelland and Stewart.

Perhaps the imperial logic of capitalism sunk the entire enterprise at concept stage. Consider: Talonbooks, who published CMF, publishes Bowering in the present. Fitzpatrick reviewed a Talon release – Gladys Hindmarch: The Collected Works – in 2020 with nary a discouraging word. Criticizing from within the circle might get one blacklisted, hence the clear white untouched space in the circle of influence, as clear as the stolen land at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, a space that whiteness built for its own purposes.





Shane Neilson runs a subscription-only poetry review-essay site, The Negative Review, that often covers the performativities of whiteness in Canadian poetry.



[1] Fitzpatrick knows this, though, which makes his use of Bowering without proper critique and contextualization all the more questionable. In his “Notes” he writes,


The colonial settlement of Calgary is on Treaty 7 territory, and that territory is the home of the Niitsitapi ᖹᐟᒧᐧᒣᑯ, Tsuut’ina, Stoney Nakoda, and Métis peoples. It’s ironic that I needed to move away to reflect on settler colonialism as an organizing fact about the place I was born. I remember the discomforting belatedness I felt as I attended events in Vancouver where Land Acknowledgements were already old hat. I learned over and over (and needed to learn over and over) that the colonial settlement of Vancouver is located on the unceded, Traditional, Ancestral Territories of the . . .

[2] Any relation to Bob Edwards?