By Barry Dempster
London, ON: Brick Books, 2009
111 pp. $13.87
Does Love Ever Come To us as We’d Like it To?
Dempster begins his series of poems by treating each of his subjects both delicately and forcefully – the two extremes of a lover’s touch – as though the same love lurks in everything he sets his eyes upon, from his own obsession with love his “first and final thought” (11) to his parents’ fated relationship, and the mating habits of animals. In “Picnic,” he is faced with the green grass of love and the stock scene of the picnic date, but the scene is torn apart, by the lovers, the ants, maggots, the speaker, until there’s nothing left but only what was there before the picnic and what remains after (19-20). Continuing with “Yes” and the initiations of love, two would-be amours read poems to one another, every cliché occurring at the same time as it is being written anew: “The trouble began when I said yes / to that first sumo push toward a relationship” and “the fear now is that you’ll go away” (21).
Through these initial poems, the question “what does ‘outlandish’ mean in the context of the book?” is answered: “looking or sounding foreign; strange,” an idiosyncratic heart beating to its own rhythm, or creating its own rhythm. Love is experience, but one can equally break it down and analyze the components generally associated with “Love” (capital L and scare quotes), like different facets of a well-cut stone, or even one not so well-cut, depending on the beholder. Although some of the poems stand apart, beautiful in their own right, the book is a sequence of poems and, like lovers, the poems are more beautiful when they are together. For example, the poem following “Yes,” “It All Starts,” reveals transition in a relationship: “This isn’t just another plea for sex, / but a need to share with you / how cold the floors are / in the morning” (23). Then, in “The Phone Rings,” Dempster builds up the lover waiting for a phone call, comparing it to an opera, hitting both the high notes of art and love at the same time as he hits the low notes of the quotidian.
It is a shame then that not all of the poems fit together so mellifluously: love begins to drift. After writing the aforementioned particulars that comprise the universal love, a new poem appears, “The Goat” – outlandishly appears one could say, and what had been so carefully pieced together begins to waver, the resonance of the voices, the high and low becoming blurred: has bathos entered the sequence? It is as though the balance could not be sustained, and Dempster’s attempts at avoiding truisms ironically begin to sound like truisms. For example, “Glowing” begins with the phrase, “The sky has flung open its bedroom windows today” (37), the metaphor rather weak in comparison to the earlier “sumo push.” Or in “Yoga Class,” if the banal is becoming bathetic, this voice persists for too long, like beating a dead horse, or writing a bad simile; the attempts to raise the commonplace into the euphoric spheres of love start to fail.
The collection, though its subject matter is a relationship, ends up mimicking a bad relationship; like love gone wrong. The beginning is blissful, but then it drags on, losing its lustre. The words, unsure of what they intend to express become dull, tedious, drift elsewhere, only to swell back near the end, searching for the infinite possibilities promised by the blissful beginning, finding that they come up short, feeling a little led-on, like a tease. Though the poems traverse back and forth between the stellar and the mundane, the cause is interrupted in the ups and downs of a tumultuous affair. Cut back some of the outlandish parts that do not measure up to the purity of the others and this would be a relationship worth pursuing, even committing to. Despite these faults, the collection is still as close to a perfect relationship as one might get, perhaps because the idea of a perfect relationship is one of those “barnacled” clichés. With how original and moving Dempster’s book is, the real sadness only comes in realizing how good it could have been.
Stephen Potts is finishing his final year of a Master’s degree in English literature. His main area of research is the rise in graphic descriptions of heterosexual sex in postmodernist fiction and how it coincides with the “waning of affect”. He also maintains an ancillary focus in film studies that began during his undergraduate degree. His academic work, poetry, and short fiction have been published in various literary and academic journals.
September 15th, 2009
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