Private Rooms: Suite for Kapwani Kiwanga

By Neil Surkan

Issue 011, Volume Three | Winter 2018

A wall is just a wall (and nothing more at all) is an exhibition by Kapwani Kiwanga, named for an excerpt from the poem “Affirmation” by civil rights revolutionary Assata Shakur. Showing at Esker Foundation, the exhibition is a call for resistance against institutionally and architecturally engrained modes of inequity and segregation, a study of the vibrational power of colour, and its institutional weaponization. Prints in Kiwanga’s exhibition, draped over common construction materials, and based off of aerial images of unsanctioned pathways in Calgary—paths made by pedestrians forsaking the pavement for a more efficient route—evidence and highlight the importance of local micro-deviancy from institutional behaviour.

Luma Quarterly commissioned a suite of poems by Neil Surkan in response to Kiwanga’s film in the exhibition, A Primer, a silent and sweeping camera pan through constructed warm white, Baker-Miller Pink, spinach green walls, and panopticon glass, with appearances of Monstera deliciosa and a metal pedestal fan. Returning to poetry as descriptor, and with Kiwanga’s photobiological study in mind, Surkan meditates on colour, nature, freedom, chaos, and the aesthetics of isolation in the specific site of Calgary. 


How can I make time out of toxins?

—Lisa Robertson




            A Float


If I’m an archipelago

of permeable particles

then a seamount, deeply

squatted, on its submarine

volcano, tangled with soft

kelp and corals, must

be what began to show

not long after the lid closed

on that deprivation tank

in between Hillhurst boutiques—

not the soul, a shank

of instinct on repeat

below whatever

part of me imagined freedom

coming from floating apart.


Underneath that lulling plane’s

peaceful harmony, the start

of warm erosion, panged

a hardened love of form. 



             A Wind

The form being a projector 
            shining beams on a taut square—
bike spokes painted poison green,
            climber on blue wall of ice, crook

of brassy trombone slide, drone prop tearing
            clear noon sky, teak bench in confession
box, raccoon with pink weeping sty, algal bloom
            in warming lake, ghost of tattoo burned

by laser, salmon gored on rocks, beer stein
            propped on ivory keys, pocked road, air
bubble-riddled IV, toad
            afloat in teal chlorine, shed shining

with power tools, sprinter on orange rubber track,
            gold expanse of tamarack, mail slot
gagged with envelopes—all vibrating on the screen 
            shaken by breathing onlookers

who, drinking light through their eyes, flush
            somewhere inside, or chill—
still being means 
            never being still.



            A Drive

Stippled creatures that we are,
the miracle is that I keep
anything inside at all,
pool net adrift at sea
with a tear for a mouth.

Idling then surging south,
I stayed alert for taillights through
my chrysalis car’s icy glass
sliding down a six-lane gash
toward the downtown core, scrapers

shining upward, floor by floor.
A five ton, Bobcat strapped on the bed,
changed its mind and veered to
an exit, kinking traffic up
like chains dropped into buckets.

Here and there the silhouettes
of men roiling on horns
pulled the world toward
themselves—trucks cinched in,
kissing bumpers, nuzzled in their anger.

A cube van braked to make a point,
a Corvette drove along the shoulder,
then the sky—draped thus far 
in scored layers of puce and black—
turned a Pepto-Bismol

pink, all at once and thick.
Vehicles slowed like mosaic
fragments filled between with
grout; I felt the teeth inside
my mouth, my heels’ padded skin, and heard

the airwaves seeping in—a mattress 
ad, Sade, static…
Placidly, we eased under
the viscous ether, that colour,
distantly bewildered.



             A Room

While housesitting
for my uncle Volker,
on the first definitive
day of spring,
I creaked to the basement
to check the sump.
The canning kitchen shone, filmy, 
like watered-down skim
milk. The fridge, unplugged,
breathed morgue-ish air 
at a sausage grinder 
on all fours
below a sentinel blender.
Though the sump was fine,
as were the hot water
and gently idling furnace,
by panning my eyes
across more objects, 
attentive to their stillness,
I convinced myself I felt
afraid. Hurrying back 
up the unfinished stairs,
I noticed a plastic castle tucked 
away with other junk from when 
my cousins had been young. 
Still amorphously
distressed, I descended again,
dragged the structure out,
and began
                             to play. I tended
the grounds, dusted
sills, then retired
in the primary-coloured 
walls to contemplate. 
The room, like the room
outside, widened the harder
I tried to place 
myself at once 
in the ground and in space, 
like a holograph,
or a homonym, or inky 
words bleeding through 
the next page. There 
I stayed, sump pump
snuffling away.




Neil Surkan's debut poetry collection, On High, is forthcoming from McGill-Queen's University Press (Fall, 2018). His chapbook, Super, Natural, was published by Anstruther Press (March, 2017). His most recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Fiddlehead, EVENT, and CAROUSEL, among others. He lives in Calgary.  


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