Wednesday, April 21, 2010

KIM GOLDBERG'S "RED ZONE" Reviewed by Jamie Reid

In December 2007, upon decree of a provincial court Judge, Nanaimo’s Red Zone was expanded by several orders of magnitude. It is now bounded by Fitzwilliam and Bastion Streets on the north, and by Milton and Esplanade on the south. This is nearly forty blocks. Basically all of downtown Nanaimo. Previously it had been one block.

To be banned from the Red Zone, one need not be tried and convicted of a crime but merely accused of one.”

Kim Goldberg boldly declares her poetic intent in the pages of Red Zone, a remarkable self-published multi-media book about homelessness in the Vancouver Island city of Nanaimo.

...I’m an urban

plastic surgeon remodelling the skin of this

declining milltown swelled with mallbloat Let’s make it pop

and sing and splay the rat-torn epic of

late capitalism in fluorescent orange This is the language

of rejoinder in a grilled cheese world encased

in its own sloppy grease The language of things

that cannot be said Of things

that cannot be permitted to be true The language of

unerasure (no matter how many times
it is obliterated) The language

of being

of existence

of We Are Here

The most visible feature of Red Zone as poetry/literature is its manifest intent to exert a concrete and immediate influence on the daily world from which it comes, the exact city of Nanaimo where the author lives, writes and acts. Goldberg's book has been deliberately fashioned from beginning to end as an item of actual practical civic use, a living document and an instrument for social change. It is fully intended to function as a kind of social lever in the hands of its readers to help them move move other minds and hearts, to shake complacencies and to arouse civic consciousness and conscience.

The civic authorities of Nanaimo and the province of British Columbia remain insensate, totally deaf and blind to the need to respond to its content. Nevertheless, other citizens, readers of every kind, are finding their way to the book in greater numbers every day, listening and preparing to act. The more who listen and act, the more possibility for change in a social situation which is becoming more desperate in the face of deepening official indifference and denial.

Goldberg's point is that the establishment of the red zone is an act of insensate cruelty committed by the authorities against not only the homeless, but all the people of the city. Denial and negation of the humanity of any group of citizens is the denial and negation of all citizens and their right to live as equals alongside others.

The red zone edict deprives homeless people of the very services they need to survive and to improve their lives, the needle exchange, health clinics, the food bank. It converts the homeless into pariahs and outcasts, invisible untouchables. It deals with the homeless as non-human trash, literally shoving them away from the table and under it, out of the protection of society, where they become invisible and beyond help.

Goldberg’s book appears in this atmosphere of cold denial as a ray of abundant light, brings the existence of the homeless out of the shadows of the underpasses where they live out into the open light of day and parades it in plain sight where it cannot be denied or turned away from. On one hand, the book provides provides a flesh-rending existential vision of the harsh life the homeless and addicted will continue to be forced to lead unless a way out can be provided through the power of a more compassionate and humane society.

On the other hand, however, Red Zone provides a life-saving and self-affirming vision for the people she writes about. It makes them visible and real to others as much as to themselves. The book thereby functions as a kind of survival manual for living in the urban hell created by the indifference and outright cruelty of Nanaimo’s civic authorities, and by the negligent indifference of governments at all levels.

A self-declared “plastic surgeon” of the real, Goldberg’s aim is not to create an artificial “poetic” beauty, but rather to tear off the masks that hide the ugliness of poverty and homelessness, and thereby provide a real measure of contemporary society and civilization. The scourge of widening homelessness has become a reality in every urban landscape, not only in Nanaimo, but throughout the world of late capitalism. In North America, it exists as an obscene absurdity alongside the huge wealth that capitalism is perfectly able to create, but rarely to share.

Pre-eminently a collection of poems, Red Zone is more than that. Red Zone is a truly genre-busting work in the best postmodern style, combining pop-art features with sophisticated language practice. The added photographs and graphics draw on graffiti slogans and drawings in the Nanaimo cityscape, the decidedly unpicturesque objects and sights of poverty and urban decay. The visual images found in the book are at once found art objects and documentary signs, sharp and funny comments on the crimes and absurdities of a brutal social order where social problems are erased and disguised and hidden away rather than brought into the open and solved.

Goldberg is a fully engaged literary activist, who doesn't simply sit quietly at home in her study. She energetically puts her body where her mouth is, carries her book directly out into the streets, making it available in as many places as she can, reading poems at universities or in urban underpasses where the homeless actually live and sleep. For Goldberg, a book exists manifestly not as a dead and silent object on a library shelf, but as part of her own life practice, part of her on-going life activity of engaging people and the world.

I want to learn if utterance can change the thing being spoken about. Will these mastodon columns [of the underpasses where the homeless sleep] release their hallowed souls?


One never knows these things if poetry won’t leave the haven of the coffeehouse, won’t stand on the precipice, wind-smacked, tongue-kissing the infinite.

The authenticity of Goldberg's concern has already been properly rewarded with a genuine audience, as few poets these days are. Almost immediately, she found an enthusiastic living audience outside the narrow circles of the university writers and the CanLit literati: the book went into a second printing three months after it first appeared, and it has already been included in several Vancouver Island university courses.

The book's deepest appeal is that it makes itself much more than a strident social diatribe. Beneath its pop and comic-book exterior, Red Zone also presents itself admirably as poetry because it succeeds in combining all of the essential elements of poetry: passion, intensity, an engagement with the intricacies of language and poetic forms, startling imagery, subtle and challenging ideas, a rough but magical music, and above all, a happily antic inventive spirit which offers humour and popular appeal alongside the obvious intelligence of the writing.

Among the manifold modest treasures the book provides, is an inventive re-casting of old forms, traditional and ancient. By re-using old forms in a new urban context, Goldberg reconfigures the meanings the old forms are able to contain, and deploys them in an entirely altered conceptual environment.

A sequence of 11 haikus, for example, brings fresh contemporary images to a form traditionally more pastoral than urban:

small dog in plaid coat
      trots past sleeping bag, leaves frosty
                        stitch of paw prints

fourth week of snow
          and only the unitarians open
     their doors

Goldberg has also created a short series of poems in a form that she calls a "minotype," “a form that resembles another in general shape but not genetic makeup.” In these poems, each two-line stanza line begins with the same word. A pastoral image is balanced against an urban image. Together, the stanzas create a series of sharp contrasts that combine to make not only a social/political statement about environmental destruction, but also a semantic statement about how words shift their meanings as the social atmosphere changes around them. These lines almost seem to say that the dehumanized world of industrial cities requires the invention of a new language entirely. In these examples, the words “crumpled” and “flat” seem almost opposite in meaning from one line to the next:

Crumpled as the bracken unfurling each spring
Crumpled as the beer cans hurled from diesel stinking cabs

Flat as the red wing blackbird’s black eye
Flat as the real estate sign that went up last night

Goldberg ends her book with a plea ambiguous and challenging in its demand for the recognition of the humanity of the powerless victims of a heartless society ruled by capitalist greed and indifference:

We are more than subject-verb-predicate

We are more than a governing device

We are more than war bled dry, epicenter aslaughter

We are more than warbled dry epic, enter as laughter
We are more

Red Zone is available from:

Pig Squash Press,
35 Prideaux Street,
Nanaimo, B.C. Canada, V9R 2M3

Kim Goldberg will be launching Red Zone in Vancouver at W2, 151 Cordova Street, 8PM, May 8, 2010. All are invited.


  1. A poet's gratitude to fellow poets who champion the just cause.

  2. we are more as war, enter as laughter