A Review of B.W. Powe’s Recent Book, Ladders Made of Water


By Allen Allen

Another profound read from B.W. Powe that clarifies, better than any book he has written yet, what exactly he has been on about. I mean this in the best possible way. Describing our post-Covid era as a kind of nowhere land (or “now here land,” intensely of the present moment) where so much is open and possible… but almost terrifyingly so because there is something harsh about it as well — the possibility that we may simply lose control or lose our way on this dizzying new frontier of possibilities. Powe is asking: Will humanity falter? Will the human experiment ultimately fail? It is a real possibility… What does it mean when all we know to be our world might very well fail or might already be failing? Should we still live as if there is beautiful possibility?

Powe explores these questions and more — how we are on a threshold of energies at play, with nothing ever the same again as it more passively was prior to our naive Covid times. What will emerge in the aftermath of such devastation… and devastation ongoing in parts of the world… Will we still be able to sense the mysterious and powerful oceanic pulse of the planet or become detached-numb to its rhythms and messages? Will we link our hearts and minds to the planet’s wisdoms or will we ignore these hidden signals…

Two recent films share profound insight to these signals we seem to be receiving (even if where they come from exactly is difficult to pinpoint): Chloe Zhao’s “Eternals” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part One”. Powe reviews them both in concise but haunting reviews unlike any other film criticism you will find these days. For Powe, the films are loose metaphors for (or imaginative images of) our new world — in “Eternals” there are eerie suggestions of humans caught in battles between our base natures and alien-like supernatural beings, so that we are all but small parts in a cosmic conflict unfolding throughout the ages and which our electricity-charged, tangled relationship with technology seems to mirror, with electric environments and contemporary technological abilities sometimes feeling supranatural; in “Dune” we find dreams as prophecy and the desert as a nowhere land where whirlwinds of vision and conflict can take shape, echoing our modern mind-scape that is a blurred mix of images and imagination and intuitions more so than it is strictly logical, all while authoritarian forces try to stamp out the possibility of a life beyond the confines of knowable structures… because to some the very possibility of a world beyond narrow limits is as an existential threat.

“Eternals” in particular has gotten a mixed reactions (relatively speaking, for a Marvel movie) from critics and audiences alike — and while the film did solid box office numbers and has its admirers, the masses seem slow to appreciate it on the whole, as is often the case with visionary work well ahead of the curve, which is a large part of what B.W. Powe is getting at with this book and which director Chloe Zhao is aware of as in one interview she wondered if maybe the movie made people feel existentially “uncomfortable” at a time when people ere already having an existential crisis.

Powe seems to say not only is that the case, but there will be no turning away from either of these existential crises. His book is dedicated to fearlessly probing both the pandemic fall-out and the shaky footing we are on in a shifting (like Dune desert sand shifting) new world of uncertainties everywhere one looks. This uncertainty includes economically, which Powe notes Zhao’s film “Nomadland” has much insight to as well, how these struggles make our spirits bare but also more open to paths… Where before we may have thought realistically, now we realize reality can always be redefined; “irrealism” is the term Powe is more fond of.

Powe also ponders if the Canadian experiences of Denis Villeneuve, the director of Dune, particularly Villeneuve’s experience with harsh Canadian winters may have helped inform his feel for the harsh desert terrains and imaginative undercurrents of “Dune.” The winter and Canadian terrain is one of distance; Canadians depend on technology to link these distances. Furthermore, the Canadian winter is one of blizzardy conditions that can blur the land into a kind of stretched out nowhere – a cold version of the hot desert with its sandstorms.

Powe is a Canadian author himself who once wrote one of the essential essays on Canadian identity in “Towards a Canada of Light.” He continues to carry the torch that uniquely Canadian thinkers like Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye originally lit as they understood Canada’s placing outside the mainstream to be conducive grounds for an outside perspective on the world. This is in contrast to other countries, such as the United States, caught up in the middle of the action, possibly without time to step back and observe or think…

Powe includes other musings on the various other uncertainties we find at our current crossroads — AI in particular is a spooky venture, although Powe also finds, too, humanistic ironies and humour in the advent of AI. Elsewhere in “Ladders Made of Water” are his recent poetry and “rock opera” lyrical writings. Through these we discover a truly alternative voice of dissent, against the panicked coldness we too often find around us.

Powe goes to places others simply won’t. These include contemplation of: Depression (melancholia) and the overwhelming aspect of the Information Age (and the internet’s organization of it) as it piles so much history on us. Powe wonders where imagination will fit into this dawning hyper-evolutionary age, we suddenly find ourselves thrown into. We must quickly learn to swim through these dreamy currents created by hyper-evolution and Powe worries we may “wake too fast.” The emotional turbulence of waking too fast could cause spiritual damage.

“Ladders Made of Water” is an absolute must-read for imaginative filmmakers, artists and technology explorers, spiritual minds, Canadian poets and audiences in today’s world that wish to be a little more attuned to the flow and depths (and hopefully someday the stillness and wellness) of our currently troubled global phenomenon… our human apocalypse… When I say “attuned”, I do not only mean mentally but also in the heart — the navigation of the heart being increasingly a lost art… Powe hopes we can retrieve this lost art at this eleventh hour that, if we still believe yet — believe in the power of vision, communication, consideration, thought and thoughtfulness — could just be the turning of the clock forward towards a bold new time.

Powe has said the book is actually only a primer for a future work, “Mysteria”, which is his magnum opus. If this is the primer… I can’t imagine how awe-inspiring “Mysteria” must be. “Ladders Made of Water” stands on its own, though, as a work of tremendous humane sensitivity in a time becoming ashamed of such feeling… Read this while you still can.

 Allen Allen
Film critic, blogger 

B.W. Powe

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