Discovery Passages

By (author) Morse, Garry Thomas
Categories: Poetry
Publisher: Talonbooks
Paperback : 9780889226609, 96 pages, March 2011


With breathtaking virtuosity, Garry Thomas Morse sets out to recover the appropriated, stolen and scattered world of his ancestral people from Alert Bay to Quadra Island to Vancouver, retracing Captain Vancouver’s original sailing route. These poems draw upon both written history and oral tradition to reflect all of the respective stories of the community, which vocally weave in and out of the dialogics of the text.
A dramatic symphony of many voices, Discovery Passages uncovers the political, commercial, intellectual and cultural subtexts of the Native ­language ban, the potlatch ban and the confiscation and sale of Aboriginal artifacts to museums by Indian agents, and how these actions affected the lives of both Native and non-Native inhabitants of the region. This displacement of language and artifacts reverberated as a profound cultural disjuncture on a personal level for the author’s ­people, the Kwakwaka’wakw, as their family and tribal possessions became at once both museum artifacts and a continuation of the ­tradition of memory through another language. Morse’s continuous poetic dialogue of “discovery” and “recovery” reaches as far as the Lenape, the original Native inhabitants of Mannahatta in what is now known as New York, and on across the Atlantic in pursuit of the European roots of the “Voyages of Discovery” in the works of Sappho, Socrates, Virgil and Frazer’s The Golden Bough, only to reappear on the American continent to find their psychotic apotheosis in the poetry of Duncan Campbell Scott.
With tales of Chiefs Billy Assu, Harry Assu and James Sewid; the ­family story “The Young Healer”; and transformed passages from Whitman, Pound, Williams and Bowering, Discovery Passages links Kwakwaka’wakw traditions of the past with contemporary poetic ­tradition in B.C. that encompasses the entire scope of ­relations between oral and vocal ­tradition, ancient ritual, historical ­contextuality and our continuing rites.


  • Short-listed, Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry 2011
  • Short-listed, BC Book Prize: Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize 2012
  • Joint winner, One of the Top Ten Poetry Collections (Globe and Mail) 2011


You pay careful attention and are rewarded. "No comment" in Discovery Passages by Garry Thomas Morse rings the changes on elements such as the tiny word "gives" — all drawn from Indian Agent reports and petitions to practice ancient ways of potlach. And then later in the book one comes across a poem entitled "Petroglyph" and it seems a simple variation on three words aligned in a 3 x 2 grid.


But if you look closely, you will see that the justification varies. And so the stone writing is not on stone but more like pebbles laid out on the beach and open to the next wave, washing all away and reminding that the layout requires song to continue on and utter the word "live" with a long or a short "i" and make choices as subtle as the shifts in the indentations of the lines. Taken in at a glance 3 X 2 and entranced. Given to the giving.

In case you are having some difficulty in visualing the complete poem, consider how the schema was generated. (Imagine if you will the simple procedure: produce a list of words, generate the various combinations, layout the result. Of course, the layout of the combinations involves further generations and choices.) I have taken to quote the poem in full. However, it is best viewed in in its published context: all on the right page facing a picture of a petroglyph from Quadra Island, British Columbia.






As in all good poems, form is only a pretext. And what Morse succeeds in doing is not only to focus on the words but also their relations. It's a gift.
- François Lachance,

Garry Thomas Morse’s Discovery Passages (Talon, $18) was a finalist for the Governor-General’s Award in 2011, and rightly so: It is a striking, radical work, one that presages Idle No More, for these poems explore the contest between settler-state culture and language and the attempts of First Nations to preserve their own traditions.

Retracing Cap’n George Vancouver’s “discovery” voyage, from Alert Bay to Quadra Island to Vancouver, Morse maps a saga of settler mischief and native resistance, and he does so in unabashedly intellectual, spiky, punny and allusive language. The look of the pages mirrors those of Ezra Pound’s The Cantos (1919-70) and William Carlos Williams’ Paterson (1946-58).

Morse’s “code” is, essentially, a rewriting of the styles of English that were used to oppress First Nations peoples and abrogate treaties.

The book opens with a politic yearning: “I too want to write those long clean lines like / cedar planks removed,” but there is also the wish to avoid “pale / white/wash / almost / so dreamy / & clean.”

The long poem No Comment chops up the prose of Indian Affairs agents, a century plus ago and less, who strove desperately to suppress the Potlatch tradition.

Morse renders their bureaucratic violence in a savage pidgin: “I realize the evil / of the Potlatch / position / IDLERS ACT….”

Morse records other documents that show that Canadian repression of the Potlatch was also a cover for theft of First Nations art and implements and their sale to museums.

These poems are smart, masterful, necessary.

DISCOVERY PASSAGES by GARRY THOMAS MORSE Talonbooks, 2011 $17.95 Reviewed by NICHOLAS BRADLEY HMS Discovery, the naval sloop that in 1792 carried George Vancouver to the island that now bears his name, was so called after another ship, the Discovery in James Cook’s fleet that anchored in Nootka Sound in 1778. The earlier Discovery, on which Vancouver was midshipman, had been renamed; first it was Diligence, a rather less auspicious moniker. “To discover” means to uncover, to make visible – the verb comes to English through Old French (descovrir) from medieval Latin (discooperīre) – and an uncovering is also an apocalypse (ἀποκάλυψις), which is both a revelation (something unexpected) and a Revelation (the end of the world). The ships of Cook and Vancouver could hardly have been more aptly named. Colonial voyages of discovery (and Discovery) left their nominal marks up and down the west coast of North America, which was willfully mistaken for terra nullius.10 A lieutenant on Vancouver’s Discovery, Peter Puget, is the namesake of Puget Sound. The third lieutenant, Joseph Baker, gave his surname to the volcano, Mt Baker, whose Lummi and Nooksack names are often rendered as “Kulshan.” Mt Rainier (“Tacoma” in Lushootseed) was named by Vancouver after his friend, Rear Admiral Peter Rainier, the commander of HMS Monarch and on the evidence of his portrait a “round snowy mountain” of a man, to use a phrase that Vancouver applied to the volcano. Vancouver paid tribute to another friend, Alleyne FitzHerbert, in naming a third mountain, Mt St Helens – FitzHerbert was the Baron St Helens. The city of Vancouver is, of course, named for the great navigator, although it did not receive that name until 1886. The Chatham Islands, also known as Chatham Islands Indian Reserve 4, a.k.a. Songhees territory, lie in Haro Strait (homophone: “harrow”), which is part of what is now called the Salish Sea; the Islands were named in 1846 to commemorate HMS Chatham, the escort vessel of Vancouver’s Discovery. Chatham Strait (Tlingit: Shee ya xhaak), in Alaska (from the Aleut Alaxsxaq), was named by Vancouver in 1794 in honour of William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham (whose name was also given to Pittsburgh, PA), the so-called Great Commoner who did not become entitled until 1766. ¡Ya Basta! as Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra (polynomial Spanish captain; island in the Discovery [for Discovery] group) or Manuel Quimper (Spanish naval officer; low mountain on southern Vancouver Island) or Bruno de Heceta (commander of Santiago; headland in Oregon) would have said– and on to the book at hand! The uses of language in the colonial history of British Columbia–naming, renaming, disguising, misunderstanding, misspeaking, commemorating, claiming, appropriating–are among the central concerns of Discovery Passages, the second trade volume (after After Jack, 2010) by Garry Thomas Morse, a Vancouver-based poet of 11 Kwakwaka’wakw heritage. The title of the book names its setting. On the map, Discovery Passage runs between northern Vancouver Island and Quadra and Sonora Islands. The narrow channel is part of the Inside Passage, the shipping route (commercial, industrial, touristic) that weaves around a succession of islands from Puget Sound to the Alaska Panhandle. Discovery Passage includes the Seymour Narrows, an infamous constriction that became less strict in 1958 when Ripple Rock, an underwater mountain, was blown up live on CBC TV. This is also roughly where Kwakwaka’wakw territory begins and Coast Salish territory ends; it is the epicentre of the history that Morse recounts and revises in Discovery Passages. The title’s “discovery” also points to the compositional techniques on display in the polyphonic book. Many of the poems are derived directly from a range of literary and ethnographic source-texts–that is, Morse discovers poems in passages of found texts. Ironies lurk here like dragons on the map: colonial writing is turned against itself, textual voyages discover only more text, ethnographic excesses both distort and give access to the past. The sequence titled “No Comment” consists of heavily redacted government documents from the early twentieth century. It begins with a statement from Sir John A.: The Kwahkewlth Agency comprehends 25 bands and 2,264 I ndians, who are the most depraved and uncivilized in the Province[.] MacDonald’s words–ignorant, redolent of prejudice, imbued with power–might be said to speak for themselves, to use that strange figure of speech. Therefore, “no comment” is required from the poet. But in fact Morse’s project of selecting and recontextualizing bureaucratic phrases ensures that such words will be read against the grain, made to speak in ways that their authors would not have intended or anticipated. Thus the Indian Agent William M. Halliday is obliged unwittingly to admit to legal injustices: big potlatch reported at Christmas investigated by police the court any way biased Halliday’s language–here turned into a telegraphic Tonto-ese–gestures toward the historical context with which Morse is concerned, namely the potlatch ban, and alludes to the legion cruelties of the era. But Morse also admits the significance of such texts: as objectionable as they clearly are, they provide the textual record on which Discovery Passages is founded and permit his investigation of and dialogue with episodes in the destructive, exploitative history of the region. Another revisionary technique is evident in “Hot Blooded: A Love Poem for Duncan Campbell Scott.” Morse’s poem lampoons Scott, venerated poet and now-reviled civil servant, juxtaposing earnest phrases from his poems (as in, from “The Onondaga Madonna,” “a weird and waning race”) with the breathless, enjambed come- ons of his would-be paramour: Hurry up. Take ’em off right now I don’t wanna wait I don’t got no self- control whatever O who can stand it a second longer this madness to your Methodizin’ your pockets are so full of poems & desire so full of somethin’ ... The writing is clever, but the poem’s parodic strategy is sufficiently familiar that its politics are less punchy than its puns. Morse begins the poem with an epigraph from Armand Garnet Ruffo’s “Poem for Duncan Campbell Scott” (from the collection Opening in the Sky, 1994), and although the tones and registers of the two poems are different, the techniques are similar. The approach is not unlike the game played by, for example, Billeh Nickerson’s “Why I Love Wayne Gretzky – An Erotic Fantasy” (in The Asthmatic Glassblower and Other Poems, 2000), in which an iconic figure is stripped (ahem) of gravitas.12 But I doubt that Scott’s poetry is much read today without regard for the other dimensions of its author’s public life; revisionist accounts of Scott’s life and works, such as Stan Dragland’s Floating Voice: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Literature of Treaty 9 (1994), have powerfully demonstrated the intricate coexistence of Scott’s two selves, the poet and the assimilationist bureaucrat. Morse’s “Wak’es” is comparably witty but more complex than his “Love Poem,” and I think more effective as a result. It concerns a carved wooden frog held at the Smithsonian Institution–a result of ethnographic plunder. A claim for repatriation of the frog is advanced through an intricate series of quotations of and allusions to Shakespeare, Whitman, the U.S. Constitution, Basho, Leonard Cohen, and more besides. It concludes with the familiar, filmic language of the heist: Just give me the frog & no one gets hurt[.] The lingua franca of jacket copy is blurbese (“A dramatic symphony of many voices ...”), but the praise on the back of Discovery Passages fails to note that the book, as this ending suggests, is essentially comic, although the humour is often withering.13 Because the colonial period of B.C.’s history is undeniably “Juan de F*cked up!” (“The Indian Picture Opera”) Morse responds with irony, making linguistic playfulness a means of recording his textual, geographical, and intercultural explorations. Even when portraying aspects of contemporary life in Kwakwaka’wakw territory, Morse is oblique. The poem “all’erta” is a statement about Alert Bay, a village (named after HMS Alert) on Cormorant Island. Here is the poem in its entirety: in alert bay the absence of car alarms almost alarms “Inalert” (“in / alert”) is not quite a word, but it evokes the sleepiness (“unalert,” “inert”) of the village, which causes the speaker unease. In Italian, “All’erta!” means “look out!” (i.e., “be alert”). What’s left in the absence of car alarms is a silence conducive to attention. The poem looks a little like William Carlos Williams minus the chickens: so much depends upon noticing how language and the assumptions that it encodes construct a place. Like Wayde Compton’s 49th Parallel Psalm (1999) and Rita Wong’s forage (2007), Discovery Passages both extends and revises a literary history of the West Coast.14 Morse challenges the official historical record while indicating with poetic form his connection to a regional tradition of avant-garde poetics represented by Spicer, Robert Duncan, and Robin Blaser, especially, but also by Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, Meredith Quartermain, Lisa Robertson, and others.15 Morse’s book is not environmentally oriented in a conventional sense, but its emphasis on the long and complex cultural history of a particular place grants it an environmental dimension, understood broadly, that will interest readers of The Goose–even those, I expect, without regional ties. The context of Morse’s book is local and particular, but the historical forces at issue are, of course, continental. The book’s final poem is “500 Lines,” the literal title referring to the schoolroom punishment, which Morse enacts. (“School” in this case means “residential schools”; one of the aims of the abusive, punitive educational system was to eradicate Indigenous languages.) The phrase “I will not speak Kwak’wala” is repeated again and again. One reviewer wrote of “500 Lines” that “It’s chilling to see on the page, and a grim encapsulation of this book’s haunting power.”16 I’m not so sure. The repeated lines are visually striking, but reading them is, well, tedious. Is Morse teasing dutiful readers, putting them in the position of the punished pupil? Perhaps, but the poem also suggests another irony: that any use to which language has been put, no matter how odious, can be redeployed in service of his poetry. A further irony consists in the resemblance of the poem to the works of some of Morse’s literary predecessors–five-hundred lines of “I will not speak Kwak’wala” bears a family resemblance to a hyperformalist experimental poem, as if by David Antin or Jerome Rothenberg or John Cage. More to the point, the twelve pages of “I will not speak Kwak’wala” are followed by an unexpected colloquy: “Kwak’wala’mas? // K’i. K’isan kwak’wala.” The words are untranslated, but the meaning, one finds, is akin to “Do you speak Kwak’wala? No, I don’t speak Kwak’wala.” The concluding lines might seem to confirm the efficacy of the punishment, except that they are uttered in Kwak’wala at the end of a book dedicated to the creative recovery of the language. “Kwak’wala” just so happens to be the book’s proverbial last word. Do these lines constitute a note of sadness, or do they wink at the reader? Such slipperiness characterizes Morse’s book as a whole. Discovery Passages is a fascinating, tricky, sometimes baffling treatment of its subject; it rewards rereading even as it proves elusive. Morse writes as he describes a cloak flapping–“impishly in the Nimpkish / wind.” ------footnotes------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 10 George Bowering’s Burning Water (1980) is based on this period of colonial history; the novel continually draws attention to the interplay of fact and fiction involved in representations of the past: Wha tever it was, the vision, came out of the far fog and sailed right into the sunny weather of the inlet. It was June 10, 1792. It could have been June 20 for all the two men who watched from the shore could care. 11 The “Jack” in After Jack is Jack Spicer (After Lorca, 1957); the allusion gives a hint of Morse’s poetic allegiances. 12 Bowering’sBurningWatercomestomindagain; in the novel, Vancouver and Quadra become lovers. Morse takes a passage from Bowering’s The Gangs of Kosmos (1969) as the epigraph to the poem “Hamat’sa,” but otherwise he has not directly responded to Bowering’s writing. 13 Praise for the book has not been confined to the jacket: Discovery Passages was nominated for the Governor General’s Award. 14 Wong is thanked in Morse’s acknowledgements and provides a testimonial on the back cover. 15 As is and does Marlatt. 16 Paul Vermeersch, “A G-G Poetry Short List to Make Everyone Happy,” Globe and Mail (11 Nov. 2011). Online. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- NICHOLAS BRADLEY is Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Victoria.

“Like Wayde Compton’s 49th Parallel Psalm (1999) and Rita Wong’s forage (2007), Discovery Passages both extends and revises a literary history of the West Coast. Morse challenges the official historical record while indicating with poetic form his connection to a regional tradition of avant-garde poetics represented by Spicer, Robert Duncan, and Robin Blaser, especially, but also by Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, Meredith Quartermain, Lisa Robertson, and others.”
The Goose

Discovery Passages is a vital cross-cultural work, urgent in both its anger and its celebration. Morse’s supple voice lifts off the page while the stripped-down quotes in the documentary poem are presented in all their damning evidence, no further comment necessary. His longer poem ‘Wak’es’ with its literary echoes, is the most ironically intelligent statement I’ve read on ­cultural theft.”
Daphne Marlatt

“In an effort to assimilate the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, the government of Canada passed a law in 1885 banning the potlatch custom, and much of Morse’s volume is dedicated to articulating the impact of this offence on the identity of his ancestors..[t]o Morse, I give an award for reclaiming a lost history, and for completing the journey from loss to articulation to poetry.”
— The Montreal Gazette

“Take Garry Thomas Morse’s Discovery Passages, for example. For the poet, the book represents a kind of breakthrough; but, his work has been on my radar for so long, I cannot imagine our poetry without it; and, sans façon, I believe we are all richer for its existence.” — Judith Fitzgerald

“Morse is a master of tonal balance, a virtuoso composer with an ear for epic contrast, and a poet of complexly binary intertexts for whom an envoi leads to no single destination.”
Canadian Literature

“Discovery Passages..a finalist for the Governor-General’s Award in 2011, and rightly so: It is a striking, radical work, one that presages Idle No More, for these poems explore the contest between settler-state culture and language and the attempts of First Nations to preserve their own traditions..[t]hese poems are smart, masterful, necessary.”
The Chronicle Herald

“These are passages planked by images of island life. Waves of words spoken by elders flood the poems, which crash into excerpts of Indian Affairs policies and paternalistic state documents. There are 500 years and 500 lines of unspeakable anguish but there is also a knowing, smiling resistance. Morse’s words are rhythmic as wild salmon, departing to explore a wider ocean but always coming back home.”
Russell Wallace

“Adept, stunning, startling, and necessary, Discovery Passages performs an uncanny operation on the archives, reactivating some stories and decommissioning others so that we can breathe more fully today. This poetic excavation of the injustice inflicted on the Kwakwaka’wakw people is insightful, tender, and brutal in its scope. Here, “language is, portaging across/ global debris...” gleaning the trash of history to make poetry that takes back what was stolen from Morse’s ancestors. This book includes the funniest dressing down of Duncan Campbell Scott I have ever read, snatching dignity away from colonial thieves and restoring it back into the communities where it belongs.”
Rita Wong

“With Discovery Passages Garry Thomas Morse has remained true to what U.S. poet Gary Snyder has called the work of poetry: seriousness, commitment to craft, and no bulls—-, no backing away from any of the challenges that are offered to you.”
The Vancouver Sun

Discovery Passages is far too rich a mélange to be fully appreciated in a single reading. A super kind of bricolage, it’s a cornucopia of gifts from Garry Thomas Morse’s personal potlatch that readers will accept with deep gratitude.”
Eclectic Ruckus

“This is a rich and varied book, combining poetic lyric with elements of visual, sound, concrete and documentary poetry..Morse enacts a very real forensic case in this book, deftly gathering and presenting the evidence of crimes against the Kwakwaka’wakw people and their language and culture.”
— The Globe and Mail

"As in all good poems, form is only a pretext. And what Morse succeeds in doing is not only to focus on the words but also their relations. It's a gift."
– François Lachance