Gary Barwin’s For it is a PLEASURE and a SURPRISE to Breathe: new & selected POEMS (Buckrider Books, 2019)

Rarely does a New & Selected come along that doesn’t feel like even a slight chore to read – either due to its unnecessary heftiness, or to the inclusion of obvious and banal juvenilia, but Barwin’s mondo tome is a sweet and easeful beast. This doesn’t mean I relished every poem/sound/visual that appears on these sleek pages, only that wow, is it a smooth read for so much divergence and variety, a generous feast of multiplicities rather than a slog.

“What happens when we open the barmy adore of words…?” Barwin asks in a later, uncollected poem, and he answers it in all his discombobulatory collections with a plethora of scales and syllables, lexical arrests, animalifications, slippery signifiers and plosive pronouns – a jazz-brained, tooth-scarred, Dada-O Hara-Cornell-Ashberian ragged escarpment of everything and the kitchen sink (or would that be the skitchen kink) too. The only unwieldy (at times) part of this New and Selected to read is the introduction by editor Alessandro Porco and not because it doesn’t offer most excellent facts, interpretations, and trajectories relating to Barwin’s life & work – mainly because I was chomping at that proverbial bit to read the pieces instead and would have preferred the placement of this essay to serve more the role of an illuminating postscript. Barwin is beyond explanation anyway. His stuff just is and if you need elaboration of the why prior you may not be his reader.

I first encountered Barwin through his collaboration with Derek Beaulieu, Frogments from the Frag Pond, their transformation of Basho, and it’s still my favourite of his books, emphasizing all the astonishing playfulness of the language-animal in imaginative reversals such as: “the pond leaps, surrounding the frog like a raincoat.” Ludic amusements are available in rampant assemblages throughout this collection, from a reprint of the early “phases of the harpsichord moon,” reproduced in its typewritten glory, to “Martin’s Idea,” prose chunks about a prescient talking dog, to a surreal and strangely emotional tale called “Defrosting Disney” in which Mickey Mouse is given a heart transplant with his maker’s ticker, the teller a “spelunker” of a surgeon, and the more profound absurdity of “Sesame Street’s Count is my Grandfather,” a perfect example of Barwin’s ability to expose Jewish forms of consciousness to those who come from alternate sensibilities, the Count “chanting the numbers….the empty chairs at the Seder” and the speaker reminding this humble puppet that “I see you, Count, a survivor.”

There are beautiful poems here amid lesser sillinessess like “Moon Baboon Canoe” ( I reviewed this book in 2014 and wasn’t a massive fan, but somehow these loopy moments make more essential sense when set amid the overall gist of Barwin’s oeuvre). Lovely pieces that stand out are the visual poems: “how i watched until the moon was caught in a tree,” a simple sequential sketch of letters, words and phrases becoming snagged on a line, as well as the baton-patterns of “Door Sonnet” and the coloured panel “Birch Murmur” where the M and U sounds meld with the dark bark slashes. Also, the six-part poem “Seedpod Microfiche,” a lullaby to minutiae and consciousness (“seedpod is the nape/of springtime on the map of trees”), “Needleminer” with its ghost blackbirds and delectable sentences such as “Like a suitcase marsh wren, adipose bulrush, like an occipital coffee/cup golf cart, a constellation of grackles,” and “Dark Matter Punctuation” that gives those silent marks an “erotic bleat of the saxophone” voicing. Powerful too are Barwin’s pieces for Carmel Purkis with its pitchforks and birds (“civilization”), for Kathryn Mockler where a nipple, twisted, opens up a compartment and “WTF inside me was hope” (“Combination”) and “Invisible Deer,” a melancholic yet funny paean to lost ecologies and aging, the speaker closing by running his “hands through cloud material” so he will know what it is “like to be old.”

Barwin is an irreducible force as a maker: musician, artist, poet, fabulist and all around bon vivant of being fully alive. This New & Selected presents the range of his energies in as zingy and vivid a way as possible upon the limited field of the page.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s