by MATTHEW GWATHMEY
FINDING THE LYRIC IN THE CRUCIALLY:
FREDERICTON REVIEWS HAMILTON
For It Is a PLEASURE and a SURPRISE to Breathe: new & selected POEMS
[Hamilton: Wolsak & Wynn, 2019, $25.00]
Flipping through this book to peer at what lay inside, I immediately knew I was in for more than just a reading of your typical new and selected poetry collection. There’s typewriter typeface, music notation, prose poems, couplets, fragments, long poems, short poems, one-word poems, drawings, comic book grids, experimental prose and visual poetry – even a 16-page insert in colour! (I have to wonder, how much did that cost?) Delving deeper, Barwin’s collection displays a singular and unique perspective of the history and progression of contemporary Canadian poetry. In short, Barwin was there, in the room. Creative writing workshop with Frank Davey? Check. Modular poetics? Check. Translating Basho’s frog haiku à la bpNichol? Check. CanaDada and SurRielism? Check. A contribution to Stuart Ross’s blog anthology 2017 Inaugural Poem using the acrostic phrase, “You Fucking Dick Wad”? Naturally. Ekphrasis? You betcha. The immigration poem? Uh-huh. The environmental destruction poem? Of course! Collaboration? More on that later.
For It Is a PLEASURE and a SURPRISE to Breathe provides an excellent survey of Barwin’s work by editor Alessandro Porco and is a must read. I would suggest you read the poems first; then go back and read Porco’s 35-page Introduction (“In Place Perfect The”) for more than a few lightbulb moments; then reread the poems to find new pleasures and surprises, of which I’ll unpack formal, tonal, and thematic varieties. Formally: throughout, there exists a great experimentation in rhythm, sound pattern, use of metaphor and imagery, in pushing the boundaries of language, how it’s used and what it can do. Tonally: past the ironic mode of postmodernism, there are fast-paced, plainspoken reflections on quotidian topics such as family, translation, and history, generally always with a Barwinian turn (can we get this eponymous adjective into usage? Meaning surprising, surreal, pleasurable, significant) not far behind. Thematically: Barwin offers fresh ways of looking at our position and function in the Anthropocene. As Porco puts it, he helps to “decentre the human on our planet and in the universe” (21). He blurs, bends, makes fluid the barriers supposedly separating the human from the nonhuman.
Take “Down into the Streets” for example. This fast-paced prose poem with a leading question and five quick-fire sentences (the lack of capital first letters lends itself to more speed, like the periods here exist somewhere between commas and actual end stops, like semi-colons…) details a simple summer stroll between “you,” a generic second-person addressee, and a “beautiful woman”. Or does it? With its “perhaps” (x 3), “maybe” and “suppose” in the first half of the poem, the writing takes on an uncertain quality, moving from the realm of the possible to the impossible when the aforementioned you “lick[s] the vault of heaven until in one spot, a little of the colour comes off” (67). The poem ends with a Barwinian turn: “as you dive into the summer air, floating far above crowds in the city, you release thousands of your business cards that fall like identical snowflakes down into the streets” (67). Surprising because we are no longer walking in the streets but flying, and the detail of business cards comes out of an imaginative nowhere! Surreal because of the move of diving into, then floating far above, then dropping something that falls down like something else (note: this is not the first moment of surreality in this poem). Pleasurable because who hasn’t had this feeling of the world working for you, if just for a few minutes, like you could fly if you just took the leap. Significant because of the turn within the turn, the great simile of releasing the multitude of business cards “that fall like identical snowflakes down into the streets.” Here we end on a conflicting yet beautiful image of humankind and nature. Our cards (made of paper) representing whatever it is we do, probably to the detriment of the environment, still caught in a sublime comparison with snowflakes, no two alike.
Another great feature of many of the poems found in this collection is how swiftly Barwin conflates the micro with the macro, the hyperlocal with the galactic – perhaps a good new category to mint is The Gary Amalgam (doesn’t have the same ring as Barwinian turn, does it?). From “Raising Eyebrows”:
he’s President of the Front Left
Burner, that illuminated coil that
radiates red heat into
yes, there’s this
spiral of heat
rising from the earth
an elegant coil passing out of
our galaxy (102)
In “Henry and Dog”:
the dog opens its mouth
the solar system
its mouth as big as that, and on the whole, more wet (113)
In other poems as well, that I just don’t have enough “space” to illustrate, the effect is a dizzying one that serves as a needed reminder of the delicate connective tissue that holds us all together with the greater universe.
Reading the introduction, I was fascinated by the various outlets of Barwin’s poetry that are quite dissimilar to my own. Barwin took myriad detours in every publishing direction. As Porco tells us, Barwin self-published through his own serif of Nottingham editions (pun intended), and his poems “also appeared in public and semi-public spaces — the musical stage, gallery wall and city street — as well as across social media platforms […] and in various formats” (42). One in particular stood out to me, part of a CD-ROM anthology released by Coach House Books, Barwin’s contribution dubbed Outside the Hat, which “included Barwin’s doodles and visual poems as animated GIFs accompanied by his original music, […] singular in Barwin’s bibliography because its multimedia format accommodated all of his literary, visual and musical pursuits” (18). Man, I’m really thinking a DVD should have come with this book! How can I get a copy of Outside the Hat the way it was meant to be experienced? A quick search reveals that it’s only $19.95 plus shipping and handling on amazon.ca, but alas, that’s only the paper version, animations and tunes not included. Barwin’s history offers a lesson here for young poets: get your work out there! Through any means possible! And don’t box yourself in with any definition of what a poem is. A poem is.
Also, collaborate. I’m not sure how it operates exactly (especially on the dual writing front), but to emulate Gary Energy, one must collaborate. For example, the “Also by Gary Barwin” page shows he has work illustrated by Kitty Macaulay and Stéphane Jorisch, work accompanied with music by Dennis Bathory-Kitsz and himself (definitely a collaboration there, two parts of the same side of the brain), and work co-written with Stuart Ross, derek beaulieu, Gregory Betts, Craig Conley, and Hugh Thomas. There’s something about this desire to team up with someone that also “decentres” the author, at least from a one-star to a binary or a triple star system, further subverting the structure of an omniscient and omnipresent creator.
There are poems in this collection that I haven’t grappled with because I do not know how to grapple with them, only appreciate them. Check out Barwin’s work on punctuation:
—“Ukiah Pond,” parentheses as water ripples.
—“The Punctuation of Thieves,” a consideration of the shape of various punctuation marks. Metaphors abound, as well as a drawing of two hands juggling the three balls of the ellipsis and punctuation as constellations.
—“Ampersand Comic,” (not) exactly what you think it is.
—“Selected Pwoerds,” teeth as quotation marks.
—Servants of Dust, in which, as Porco explains: “Barwin translates Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets by evacuating the Bard’s love poems of words, leaving only punctuation, which he then writes out (e.g., semicolon, comma and exclamation point)” (41).
All I know is that I’ll never look at punctuation the same way again!
Personally, for me the most affective conceptual poem is “Goodbye”. Written in abecedarian form (thanks, Porco, for pointing this out!), this poem simply lists banned assault weapons:
Goodbye, Barrett REC7, formerly known as the M468
Goodbye, M82 .50 calibre sniper rifle
SC-70/90 folding-stock variant (187)
The fact that Barwin wrote this poem in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 (thanks again, Porco) just adds to its driving force, turning the catalogue of guns into something more than just a parting. It’s a perfect gesture, saying “goodbye,” as it encapsulates the hopefulness, the irony, the desperation, and the despair, all in one word. For the weapons still are out there, being used, and gun violence is more prevalent in the United States than it has ever been. Here the conceptual turns overtly political, and unfortunately, still very much relevant today.
I’m going to bring up T. S. Eliot here, but I blame Barwin for this reference, as he brought him up first in his Acknowledgements: “Jay Frost, friend and high school roommate, who used to intone Eliot’s The Waste Land, which he’d memorized in its entirety […]” (243). In Eliot’s essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” he wrote that “the poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.” Pronoun problem aside, I disagree with Eliot’s basic thesis, that poetry has to be difficult. One doesn’t need 433 footnotes (as found accompanying The Waste Land) to enjoy a poem. But then, one doesn’t need these footnotes to enjoy TWL… The point I’m trying to make here is that what makes a poem [insert your own adjective here, may choose from: successful, lyrical, memorable, emotive, sublime, affective, effective, considerable, convincing, triumphant, flourishing, intimate, enjoyable, crucial, good] is its “playbackability.” Will I return to it? Will I discover something new? Will I enjoy it afresh? Will something else come through? Difficulty may play a role here, but a poem cannot be impenetrable.
To answer those questions about Barwin’s new & selected, I make four yeses generally powered by one feature: Barwinian wordplay. As Porco points out, “the pun is […] central to Barwin’s poetics” (20). (I counted 1,087.) And we’re not talking about your uncle’s puns either, we’re talking about serious, unsettling, destabilizingly humourous stuff. Barwin even ends his uproarious Acknowledgements with a pun. “There’s an old Jewish saying, ‘It takes a hero to avoid a wisecrack.’ I’m no hero and I want to end with a joke because there’s a wisecrack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. Even here” (245). Plenty of light in this illuminating work, for it was a pleasure and a surprise to breathe in Barwin’s poems.