Reviewed by Zane Koss
Origins. Palimpsest Press, 2012.
John Wall Barger
Hummingbird. Palimpsest Press, 2012.
In his 1959 poetic manifesto “Functional Poetry: A Proposal,” Louis Dudek insists that poetry must “invade the areas of life where human energy has gone” in order to “win back lost ground” from prose. Darryl Whetter’s Origins takes up Dudek’s call through its direct engagement with the scientific. In so doing, it acts as part of a wave of recent works that blend science and poetry. In Origins, nineteenth-century geological discoveries among the rich fossil deposits at Joggins, Nova Scotia provide Whetter with the substrate for poetic connections that span both time and space. The book is divided into two halves: “The Part” and “The Counterpart,” scientific terms for a fossil and the impression it leaves behind. These twin halves are comprised of poems that engage Paleozoic geology and Victorian science, as well as poems that play with the resonances between this layered landscape and contemporary life in Nova Scotia.
The poems in the first half suffer primarily from a need for greater editorial ruthlessness. Much like the fossils that recur throughout the text, “The Part” contains compelling poems obscured by excess material – awkward lines or stanzas that add little impact. Closing couplets that offer epigrammatic conclusions are in the most obvious need of excision. There are still plenty of highlights in this half of the text. In “Mary Anning (1799 – 1847) and Some Members,” Whetter engages playful puns about “Little orphaned Anning” that criticize masculine bias in the sciences through meaningful juxtaposition:
you’re the she of
While the first half of Origins works to build a body of knowledge about the Joggins Fossil Beds and nineteenth-century scientists, the second half relies on this corpus to give greater resonance to its more traditionally lyric poetry. The poems of “The Counterpart,” then, are most effective when their connection to “The Part” is most explicit. Poems such as “Fog” and “Country Dog” are fine poems that wouldn’t feel out of place in another volume, but this non-specificity is precisely their weakness. Conversely, “Coastal Coal” is one of the strongest poems of the second half because its movement backward through Nova Scotia history transforms the scientific discourse of “The Part” into a critique of the naturalized language of capitalist domination, expressed, deftly and delightfully, through a disruptive break in the rhythm of a familiar Maritime folk tune: “I’s the b’y who builds and digs / but never owns” (73). As Whetter delineates these meaningful connections within his source material, Origins works to underscore the Earth’s interconnectedness.
John Wall Barger’s Hummingbird also takes our interconnected globe as its topic; whereas Origins uses geology to link disparate times and places, a globe-trotting travel narrative holds Hummingbird together. Barger’s poems range from the more literal realism of “How I Fell into the Liffey River” to the psychotropic swirl of the volume’s eponymous centrepiece “Hummingbird,” which takes place during a Día de Muertos celebration, complete with the ghost of Octavio Paz and references to fellow Canadian Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Broadly, Hummingbird tells the story of a recently divorced man who stumbles his way mostly eastward around the globe from one incident or party to the next. The book itself is composed of three numbered sections that contain individually titled poems. The three sections are labelled only by roman numerals, but they more-or-less group Barger’s poetry into three geographic regions: Part I, the Americas; Part II, Europe; and Part III, Asia.
Though the book trades in many of the tropes of post-Kerouac travel narratives, including a few instances of questionable representational or sexual politics, the overall tone is gloomy, rather than ecstatic. Locations both domestic and foreign are described as sites of death, filth and stagnation; “cloud” lie “dead still” (18), a girl in Mexico City “scampers, stumbles / on Styrofoam into a bog-heap / of cardboard plates, lime rinds, [and] cigar butts” (35), a cow dying on the shores of the Ganges
will be thrust
In spite of this gloom, Barger’s nimble language sparks throughout: in “On the Day I Picked Emily an Orange,” “Glistening schoolboys fling stones / at things they love: dogs, the sea” (50); the lineation of “Greyhound Fables” creates an inadvertent Imagistic couplet about a woman riding the bus to Thunder Bay “to lay her murdered daughter underground. / A crow spotlit in dusty headlights” (19). Barger has an eye for arresting images, and the squalor he meets with across the globe offers plenty of opportunities to deploy his talent.
The emergence, from these often incongruous places, of a burgeoning humanity stitches Barger’s text together and helps forge the traveller’s perspective on worldly grime into a coherent critical project. Much like the shifting heap of refuse that reveals a child in the circular beginning and end of “Hummingbird” or the mouse pressed into the gaps of a New York City sidewalk in “Inside the Buddha,” Barger reveals the small humanity that exists between the cracks of global capital. In what is likely the most humane moment of the text, the speaker strikes up a conversation with a New York City street performer, costumed as Lady Liberty: “Turns out / she is a small Peruvian man from Cuzco, in a torn parka” (15). The poet watches as the performer “helps his brothers / tear down the tiers of unsold I ♥ NY tshirts. / They labour off, rolling a wooden cart into the park, / chatting in Spanish, as streetlamps stammer into consciousness” (15). The poems are filled with the trash and grime of consumerism — “A ragged plastic kite caught in a eucalyptus tree” (67) — and the people that populate these poems are themselves the further detritus of globalization. Yet, Barger conveys that there is community at the ends of the earth, and that the drifting human debris of global capital can be both a village and a family.
Hummingbird and Origins meditate on what it means to be human in both an increasingly connected world and a world that has always been connected. Despite the fact that Barger and Whetter work from opposite perspectives (synchronically and diachronically, respectively), both make their strongest case when their poems pluck at details. In Whetter’s address to Charles Darwin, he notes that there was “no tool more valuable than the path, / you had cut for daily contemplation” (30). While the repeated hard “c” and “t” sounds in the second line provide a startling sharpness, the passage is most striking for the simple means by which Whetter humanizes a typically abstract historical figure. Towards the end of Hummingbird, Barger captures this shared subjectivity in a gesture:
I am death, I am death, a boy with lovely almond eyes
Details such as these draw the reader into both texts and concretize the broad connections they hope to trace.
The poetry in Hummingbird is more heavily composed than in Origins, and though this makes for a tough entry into the text, the poetry in Hummingbird is better than the looser, more accessible work of Origins. The overarching threads in Hummingbird are more thematic than conceptual, and the tighter hold onto a critical project in Origins makes the latter the more coherent as a whole. Both Hummingbird and Origins suffer from dry patches, but Barger and Whetter succeed because their texts enact the same principles of connectivity and humanity that their subjects imply. Ours is a world bound together by networks unthinkable even a generation ago. Yet this new Pangaea still bears the marks of the old, and is further dissected by the fault lines of global capital; Hummingbird and Origins make admirable attempts to explore these two histories.
Zane Koss is a doctoral candidate at New York University and studies poetry since the Second World War. He is a recent graduate of the Master's of English Literature program at McGill University, where his research focused on the intersections between experimental poetics and experimental politics in Louis Dudek's 1950s poetry. He has been previously published in Poetry is Dead, CV2 and the Bull Calf Review.
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