by Barry Dempster,
London, ON: Brick Books, 2013
96 pp, $20
Barry Dempster’s fourteenth collection of poetry, Invisible Dogs, is a sensual look at love and aging in clear language that addresses the complexities of the topics beautifully. Dempster has the ability to be gentle, thoughtful, and completely solid as so much of his perspective is grounded in the natural world whether it’s the human body or other animals or the landscape.
This collection comprises five sections: “There’s a Hole in the World,” “She Said/He Said,” “Rocky Variations,” “Going Under,” and “Walking Away.” Perhaps the most effective section is the final one, which is a series of nine linked poems. “Walking Away” has the depth of a long poem, and in a way it is one. The first poem raises the question of purpose: “Do I still need a destination?” Then it gives an answer: “I walk for no good reason” but the purpose is in life, in putting one foot in front of the other and moving on, or more specifically in this case, moving away.
Anyone who has ever spent time in Banff will recognize the settings of “Rocky Variations,” in which Dempster pay homage to the beauty of the landscape and its animals without a molecule of sentimentality. In “Bear Story, for example, Dempster describes a number of encounters with bears. The bears win. The poem opens with a taste of what’s to come: “On Tunnel Mountain, a bear sideswipes a cyclist, / black claws a sudden red, drool / the stuff of victory not hunger.” And in every meeting between hikers and bears, the bears get to decide the outcome. That’s just the way it is. Respect for the wilderness and its animals infuses several of the poems in this section. In “Skunk Hour,” Dempster plays with the idea of the human need to control, and in this case, that control is evidenced by turning a skunk into a pet. But skunks are not pets, and it is foolish and egotistical to think that human beings are dominant. The poem ends with the skunk’s desire to be rid of the person. And then Dempster twists hubris: “Now tell a story where you don’t even exist.” This admonition to erase the self is beyond Dempster’s speaker’s usual self-deprecation.
“She Said/He Said” is another sequence in which each poem works more effectively for being together. In nineteen poems, the poet describes a relationship unravelling. And in the disintegration, the power of the union is ironically made evident. In “Daily,” the man attempts to go on with his ordinary life while the woman sends postcards from far away. As the speaker announces at the outset, “The day goes by whether it’s lived or not.” It’s an obvious truth, but it packs a punch.
Overall Dempster’s language is direct and engaging. The lyricism is heightened because of the lack of verbal clutter. Emotions rule the page, but they are irrevocably linked to the concrete world. Line length is precise and elegant. The occasional reference to popular culture sometimes jars, but that’s the intent, I suspect. I suppose I could natter on about finely-honed craft and all that (which most definitely exists), but the truly arresting aspect of these poems is their intensity of feeling and the poet’s respect for feeling.
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