The Most Charming Creatures, Gary Barwin
ECW Press, 2022
If you’re familiar with Gary Barwin’s work as a poet, you’ll know that he dances with language and metaphor in a way that most other poets envy. He plays with language, not in an annoyingly punny way, but in a way that encourages you to step outside of yourself and consider how a poem might stretch out like a yoga pose, ask you to sink into the place where meaning is made and transformed through language, and then question your own sense of the world. Barwin presents the poem with a quick hand, turning it so that it prisms in front of the reader. His keen ability to draw the reader into the text he offers is always admirable.
The epigraph to the collection, a quotation borrowed from Rachel Blau Duplessis’ “Precis,” sets the course for the journey. If we have questions about the ways the world works, in both small and large ways, “it is scrupulous to listen./Especially to the shadows.” It is a call to be mindful of what surrounds us each day. In the “Dust of the Wren” section of the book, in “Everything,” Barwin tells his reader that he is going to put “everything/into a poem/but/in a way/that appears/invisible.” Good poets know how to do this, to fashion poems that speak clearly without pulling aside a Wizard of Oz curtain to reveal the time and care it takes to craft a piece of work.
In “I Have No Words,” the poet speaks of how it is difficult to know what should, or should not, be written about. He recognizes that care must be taken, that a writer must locate themselves and consider their privileges before they put pen to paper: “I’m not going to speak/No I will take no air/from those who should speak/from those to whom we should listen.” We write, so we take up space, Barwin says, but he also asks us to think about whether we ought to speak if it is someone else’s space or territory. Still, in the very act of writing a poem, he notes that even the act of writing a poem has it “ending with/the words/my own words.” Even the act of creating a piece of writing takes up space that perhaps isn’t yours to take up, and how do you navigate (and negotiate) that space with care? He asks us to care, to consider, to rethink the context.
In poems like “Phases,” “Errata,” “Portal,” readers will get a sense of the way that Barwin loves to play with typography and space on the page. His wit and sense of humour are conveyed, too, in the way he plays with language. In poems like “Barman,” the poet writes: “Capitalism, Martin Luther and an amoeba walk into a bear.” In “Sandwich,” the three words that make up the poem reflect the physical construction of a sandwich: “bread/something else/bread//bread/something else/something else/bread.” If you’re able, it’s best to hear Gary Barwin read his work in person, to catch the cadence of the ripples of repetition. Sometimes, the humour comes with a wink, as in the necessarily tiny piece, “Haiku,” when he writes: “five snowcapped mountains/seven snowcapped mountains, ah/five snowcapped mountains.” Here is a poet who explores language, sound, and meaning in innovative ways, so that each poem is unique, filled with quirky and sometimes surrealistic internal (and external) landscapes. Barwin might also be the only Canadian poet I know of who has made reference to the game of crokinole, and that’s humourous in and of itself.
All of this is not to say that seriousness does not find a home in Gary Barwin’s The Most Charming Creatures. He writes of the climate crisis in “Goodbye,” creating a litany of things that will be lost if we don’t mind our typically selfish behaviour as humans: “Goodbye he nods but what about the koalas?/We had eucalyptus but now we have fire…Goodbye clouds, streetcars/filled with fish or birds, our hands gripping oceans. We are leaving/now. We are leaving because tangled in this net the ocean comes with us.” The collection deals with loss—of people and places, and even of the passage of time—and grapples with how we manage to live with grief. In “Something Else,” he reflects on advice given by a departed poet friend, Dave McFadden, writing: “it’s been raining all night/and I can’t sleep/half-remembering a poem.” In “For/after Hugh Thomas,” Barwin writes of how “life is long,” unless it ends quickly, like a rocket or “a foot fall/landing on the ground.” He ends the poem with: “but of course I miss you/I miss you/you’re not here//not here/and all I can do/is walk.” When we lose those we love deeply, the grief is just as deeply felt, and Barwin captures this bittersweet truth in his work.
What is really lovely about Gary Barwin’s The Most Charming Creatures is that you turn pages without being sure of where you’re headed, but knowing—if you’ve been lucky to have read his poetry before—that it will be a collection of great depth and complexity, and that his poems will make you think about and then reconsider your place in the world. His artful touch when it comes to poetic craft, and his satirically smart voice and style, can soften or sharpen depending on the topic at hand. It is a gift of craft that too few poets have these days.
Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. Her latest book of poems is Emptying the Ocean (Frontenac House, 2022). She is the First Vice-Chair of The Writers' Union of Canada (2023-25), a member of the League of Canadian Poets, and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Kim’s first novel, The Donoghue Girl, will be published by Latitude 46 Publishing in Spring 2024. She may be reached via her author website at www.kimfahner.com