In Love Outlandish, Barry Dempster presents love in many shapes from shifting angles, then collates the results, from the passionate and the faithful to the obsessive and off-beat. I was struck by both the steadfastness of theme and the unifying style and voice, revealing a speaker of wry humour, capable of self-irony in his pursuit of the truth at whatever cost. Dempster typically uses the long line, whatever the length of the verses, since the lines enjamb across whole stanzas with dexterity and expansiveness on the way to exploring what may be said. Here is a poet whose loquacious and endearing self-examination turns up in unexpected places with all the nuance of changing perceptions and the complexity that results from the minutest of thoughts.
The title poem, "Love Outlandish," introduces the theme of personal passions in its eccentric variety. From a love of collectibles ranging from cacti to stamps to music, the poet arrives at his own idiosyncratic loves:
And me, with my film books, my poetry,
my ton of trivia, how did I find
space for you, love
outlandish, first and final thought?
I am gathering images of you and
pasting them on my nakedness, like one
of those street poles in Paris
where possibility is many layers thick. (11)
The poet brings us to the point that not by bread alone or "the necessities" are we kept alive, but by "drawers filled/ with butterflies, art deco prints." Each line is sinuously reinforced with a freshness of metaphor that makes the lines flow with the reckless speed of new directions and meanings that mirror the enthusiasms described.
"Devotion" presents the speaker's father's love for his mother during her sickness and after her death with painful attention to telling details. With narrative sweep in the first line, "It was a left turn at Bad Luck, then/ a sharp turn on Despair," the speaker proceeds to catalogue his father's futile "memorization" of his mother's changing physique: "the strawberry freckle on her left/ ankle, the wrinkled cleavage, the bald spot" (13).
Nights when TV was doing its damnedest
to distract him, I'd hear him talking
above the din, telling her how it felt
to be skinned alive. Love you, love you,
the old refrain, his hand sitting beside
him on the couch, squeezing air. (13)
Although the "love you, love you" in its immediate effect comes perilously close to melodrama, the father's lonely gesture wrings us with its honesty.
With a more banal kind of honesty, "Yes" outlines the speaker's seduction into an affair with a woman while she becomes confused in his mind with chocolate and his love for books. With tongue-in-cheek irony, Dempster begins, "The trouble began when I said yes/ to that first sumo punch towards a relationship":
Yes, most of what we said was true.
Thrill of words spilled into verse.
The comfort of hearing voices coming from
someone else's skull, sharing the craziness. (21)
Dempster carries on with virtuoso technique that allows the shifting metaphor to leap out of the lines: "When I said yes to chocolate, / I was surrendering to everything" including "standing here in the poetry section,/ open to all the lines, all the life-changing/ metaphors; nodding discoveries, sharing a face" (22). As so often in Dempster's poems, the stray images in the beginning of the poem are reintroduced from a slightly different angle. Typically, the reader feels as altered as the speaker in the poem by these metamorphosed images and their changing meanings.
Also intricate and complicated in the development of the central "blue rose" metaphor is the poem "Blue Rose," in which the speaker, again with tongue-in-cheek irony, sets out to put love down on paper as a safer and "more rakish" means to experience love than the real thing. Here Dempster's speaker playfully proceeds to align his preference with that of Yeats:
. . . Next morning, saturated
with longing I stumble to the kitchen
for a vitamin, a bolster
for my sad veins, and discover
the crystal vase full of blue water, (32)
The rose, having exchanged "bodily fluids" with the water all night, becomes an analogue for unrequited love "leaking in one direction," and so the poet apologizes for his failure to write a poem with "shy adjectives." His observation that Yeats would have written about "thorns and bleed, a daunting chemistry/ that gusts across the page in bursts of blue" modifies his suggestion of a safer, even innocuous way to experience love.
The quirky "Picnic" is a gem. The speaker warns us not to consider this a "gravedigger's soliloquy" along the lines of that in Hamlet. Instead, in expressing his desire to consume and be consumed, he may be voicing the ultimate existential wish:
Just think, an ant toting one cell
of shed skin, savouring a memory
so minuscule it's barely a flicker.
By the time the maggots arrive
in their white priestly gowns, it will be
an intimacy beyond candlelight
and raw-red wine, a consecration
of the lowest and highest minds, (19)
Although I found myself delighting in the lush, if putrid metaphor, I admit that I became slightly squeamish in the latter part of the poem in which the speaker envisions "hands with their tiny curls of dead skin/ touching me in all my newborn places." Here is a bringing together of birth and death, love in its full spectrum of association with pro-generation and decay.
A fitting poem to end the collection is "Third Presence," in which the speaker sees the "you" of the poem observing herself in the mirror while the speaker's vision includes both the subject and her reflection (105-106). As in "Blue Rose," the poet's peculiar dissociation from the lover and what may be her self-interest implies a depth of understanding but also distance and apartness.
Love Outlandish may be Dempster's best collection to date, both in terms of its thematic integrity and as a cumulative intensifying of its poet's perspective on love. I could not read it in one sitting but had to sift through gradually--so knotted in metaphors are the roots that I found I had to take care to untangle their meanings.