BLUE WHEREVER, Reviewed by Natalie Thompson for Prairie Fire
Double cream Brie cheese and Bordeaux with a bouquet of berries and caramel. Spinach salad with thick, double-smoked bacon bits. Ginger biscuits with tea. A snow-feathered forest with elegant deer prints that trail to mysterious places. Blue Wherever with your favorite place to read – in too-hot bathwater, on the couch with a ganache sundae, on the bus with strangers peering at you, in a remote corner of a colossal library.
Barry Dempster’s twelfth book of poetry doesn’t need a good pairing; it deserves one. As the back cover blurb says, “There is loss and loneliness, even huge awols of hope…Blue Wherever returns us to being in the moment with an intensity and beguilement often reserved for romantic love.” Being in the lyric moment – like the moment two flavors are experienced by your tongue – is what Dempster’s work is about.
Divided into three sections, Blue Wherever lays bare extraordinary quotidian moments in an “endearing self-examination” (Gillian Harding-Russell, back cover). The first section is surely an opus of domestic-life-meets-nature poetry and all the tropes traditionally used in pastorals– anthropomorphisms, pathetic fallacy, personification of time etc. –are used to his advantage. These tropes are drawn with clean lines, or clean line breaks, that do not clumsily draw attention to their use. Exactly what you’d expect from a master writing his twelfth book.
In his piece “No Time” (18), a pastoral mood is created with lines like: the “leaves with blood in their faces” are “growing dizzy and letting go.” “No Time” questions the changing of the seasons as if it were the changing seasons of one’s life. Dempster’s elegant lines reveal a new, forlorn and breathtaking, side of seasonal yardwork, as:
that season where
even words freeze, pens casting
blue sleep on white pages
the way dead still carry colour
in their folded wrists.
The cedar waxwing parading around the backyard in “Swoop” (17) provides an occasion to ask about why we don’t stop with the daily fuss of maintaining the family nest – why have eyes “too busy searching for dust”? Why not follow the lead of a bird “stuffed with breeze”? This bird does “the berry swoop,” which is naturally “the best thing to do with a pair of wings.” Life’s mundanity diminished, indeed.
Yet, for me, the poem that struck me most was “Blindness” (23) a poem about meeting a horse who lost an eye in an accident. The horse’s profile is “fit for a coin” on one side, but on the other side it looks “as if a cage / had lost it’s golden bird…Gruesome, perverse.” something that no feeling human can see without reflecting on how the “heart / alone is an ugly mess.” By the end of the poem, you are “less alone now, as close to loved / as shocked can get.”
A paradise theme presides over the book: earthly glory found (section one), Xanadu lost, leaving disappointment in its wake (section two), and rapture created (section three). In the first section we have the thesis-like line in “Happy To Be Cold”(20): “Not even war can stop me from / loving the world, quietly unrequited.” And in the poem, “How To Fall,” we are given an image that conveys the spirit of the second act in this paradise play: “the sky / lays down a concrete slab / over the mouth of a well.” The anthropomorphisms of the sky’s act and the well’s opening tells us that humanity has made big-sky efforts to silence and suffer the ‘natural’ world. The next two poems are augmentations/arguments of this theme. “Unnatural”(58) is a sad tour of an English rectory garden where the speaker realizes that the teddy bear by the clematis is actually a tacky “decoration…like the fantasy life shadowing / my dailiness when facts aren’t good enough.” And the rest of the poem asks why mar the garden we have with “kitsch” and “plastic”? Anywhere this speaker looks, ‘suburbanity’ is ridiculous.
Then comes the prose poem “Little Voice” (60), which is probably my personal favourite, and its mystery deserves an Arc magazine “How A Poem Works”-style scrutiny. In this piece the off-key notes that our daily lives hit all gong from inside the speaker, instead of being reflected in the outside world with a lot of pathetic fallacy. In the first sentence we are sentenced to “a daydream guillotine” where “the view” is seen by plucked-out eyeballs sitting on the dashboard of a car rather than in the head of the speaker. This dramatic monologue-like poem is spoken/seen from two (possibly more) points of view – the speaker outside his body, and the speaker inside his body – as communicated by the eyeball image. This visceral disconnect is further driven home in the image, “my mouth a hole some small creature digs in the middle of a lawn.” Again, the earth-is-mouth metaphor appears. The speaker says of his alter ego, “crony”: he is sometimes seen “slithering across the blue vines of my bed.” The peril of the world at large is the peril of the individual and denial can stave it off, but it will come slithering to the speaker, to us, in the vulnerable hours of the night.
After section three, you might find yourself asking what one should do when nothing seems right. The answer? Take a step back, and look at the big picture. The third section does precisely this– creates paradise, peace, from the inside out. The titles of the poems easily lead to this conclusion: “The Path” (73), “We’ve So Much to Learn,” “The Trip,” “The Future” etc.
Around the middle of the third section, you might run into a déjà vu feeling – haven’t I heard/seen/read this argument before? Perhaps it is the stance of the speaker in the poems – a traditional lyric I/eye that both questions its own empirical stance and imprints itself on the outside world in order to draw conclusions, make aphorisms – that begins to weary the reader. Perhaps that’s why “Little Voice” stands out: it and breaks from the grounded monotony of traditional stanzaic patterns and splices the I/eye into fractions, thus leaving the reader wondering at its multi-faceted quality. In the final section there is a prose poem sequence, “The House Poems,” (88) which also stands to intrigue. In “Furnace again” (89), we are given lovely and wild images like, “So much love, it’s unreal. Seems like the entire world as burst into orange and red, is bleeding glory into the air itself.” Enough said.
As an aperitif to this review, I offer my own pairings. Consider reading the title poem, “Blue Wherever,” on a crisp winter night; its joy and hopefulness will cheer you. “Christmas Spirit” (85) is a poem that should be wedged between thoughts of, “Where’s the closest gym to sign up at?” and “What am I going to do with this overabundance of turkey carcass?” If you have a friend with a great sense of humour, read “Mid-Life Crisis” on their fortieth birthday, or read it to them tomorrow. But save a re-read of “Blindness” and your own favorite for a visit to your favorite reading spot.
Barry Dempster has poetry forthcoming in PRISM 49.2 – keep an eye out for it!