Poetry: Pretty is as Pretty Does
The lyrical tradition celebrates beauty
By Barbara Carey Books Reporter , Toronto Star, published on Friday March 26, 2010
Barry Dempster’s Ivan’s Birches (78 pages, $20) comes from Toronto’s Pedlar Press, a small literary publisher that produces some of the best-looking books around. The collection’s clean, elegant design is true to the work within, which is graceful and in keeping with the traditions of lyrical narrative poetry. (Dempster, who lives in York Region, has written nine volumes of poetry — two shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award — as well as a novel, two story collections and a children’s book.)
In essence, Ivan’s Birches is a celebration of beauty, an expression of the poet’s passionate conviction that being receptive to the lovely things that surround us makes us more human. In the title poem, based on a film by the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, he writes of “glowing with the kind of consciousness / where beauty breaks out on a branch or stem,” and goes on to describe the experience as “the closest Ivan / and the rest of us come to miracles.”
Dempster’s appreciative eye takes in everything from mallard ducks (“stained glass windows tucked between their / feathers”) to the hands of a pianist, “more cadence / than muscle.” The poems often build from quiet contemplation to rapture, as the poet loses himself in a painting or is spellbound by music in a darkened concert hall.
Dempster’s willingness to also include the negative gives tension and greater dimension to his work. He reflects on sharing William Blake’s belief in “poetry as a breathable / nourishment, an essence, manna drifting on the breeze” while acknowledging that this idealistic notion withers in the face of harsh reality (“What did he recommend / for the presence of death”).
Dempster’s ambivalence extends to writing itself. In one poem, students learn that “description / is a form of love.” In the poem on the facing page, he pokes fun at a gaggle of writers at a retreat, stalking inspiration in the form of “one over-observed leaf” and a deer pursued “with our nets of reverence.” As much as he loves words, he often laments their inadequacy, frustrated by “the distance of words, / the gap between a hug and a mere verb.”