Trying on the Walrus Costume in the Ed Sullivan
Theater of the Mind,
John Wall Barger
Bottlecap Features, 2022
For all the phantasmagorical theatrics of the title, John Wall Barger’s chapbook-length poem begins with short quiet lines of absence. “The unheard sounds / That change us / Altering the fabric / Of our hands / Of our eyes / Before we even hear them” begins the first stanza, which is framed in what is not present: “unheard” and “before.” Within this framework of nothing, there’s a transformation of the self, represented in the figure of hands and eyes. Perhaps this is where the costume in the title starts being made, or maybe it’s within the unknown dimensions outside of our control from which change comes crashing down. What I love about Barger’s poem is that questions are posed within the beauty of language and the acknowledged mysteries of the world leave room for readings and rereadings. Like all good poetry, any summation of it is lacking, but the strategies the poet uses to climb towards meaning can be identified and appreciated.
Trying on the Walrus Costume... chronicles the poet/speaker’s 73-year-old father’s nearly fatal fall from a ladder. Since the speaker is in another country, texts from his mother keep him updated on the father’s condition. When the news first arrives, the son is listening to the Beatles’ The White Album. The panic of the heart is heard within the dissonant experiments of the album which “pulls us / Ruinward.” This sound of disaster triggers memories of first learning about John Lennon’s murder, which the speaker heard on the radio when he was 11 years old “bagging comics / My first job, Johnson’s Books / A comic store” The father’s life, texts from the mother, and John Lennon’s music and history are the main elements set up to be interwoven and mixed together through the duration of the poem. The relatively straightforward beginning takes on layers of complexity that at times screams out noise and at other times breathes nuance.
I’d like to pause on the brilliance of this one word: “ruinward.” The compression of Barger’s poetics takes all the reflection, panic, sounds, whistling (yes, there’s some whistling!) and music of the first two pages of the poem and distils it into something that moves towards ruin. Everything moves towards a point of entropy, but ruinward is a unique marker for this moment. In its combination of two “r”s, it’s a growling word that ends in the full stop of a /d/. Barger may have come up with it on his own or lifted it from Alfred Edward Housman’s 1936 poem “I wake from dreams and turning,” which ends with the line: “The world runs ruinward.” If it’s an invocation of that 1930s poem, we may hear the additional noise of political violence rising in the distance. Another unsettling layer.
This compression of ideas into words and then into compound words reaches a fever pitch midway through. The mother’s emojis at the end of a text are set in contrast and comparison to hyphenated compound words: “Irascible hawk-god, small-mouthed witch-man.” This collage of language might also might be seen as coinciding with the change in tone in the White Album that moves from the soft and comforting “Julia” (mentioned earlier in the poem) to the familiar yet strange "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" to the sonic collage chaos of “Revolution 9.” This piling up of words and subjects, tricks us (or me at least) into reading one of the mother’s texts as music from the Beatles.
Barger’s astute wording is complimented by memorable phrases. One of my favourite lines from the entire chapbook is “so you speak in the undestroyable present tense.” Given how the poem reaches back to before the speaker is born, the meaning of the indestructible nature of the present is not centred in any one person. I die but the present tense is taken up by other people and their complicated relationships. Within the context of the poem, the “you” is most likely John Lennon speaking to his mother who died when he was seventeen, but the line appears in its own stanza and the “you” is relatively loose. It could be any of the figures in the poem speaking, continuing the thread of the opening stanza’s “us.”
The connections between people in the poem is made most explicit between the father and John Lennon. We learn early on that Lennon is the father’s favourite Beatle and after the father falls from a ladder, we are taken to the scene of Lennon’s murder, where the rockstar lies “Under the Dakota Building / Archway / Ladder of stones.” This is immediately followed by the mother’s text about their loved one’s surgery and it’s hard not to imagine the “titanium rod” in his body as another kind of ladder. While this might be an interpretative stretch on my part, ladders do become a central image in the poem. “Up the ladder, up, up, up / Out of the land,” follows a stanza about an “ego-shattering” experience for a reputed “hero,” which could be the father or Lennon, two male role-models in the speaker’s life. Within the general drift of the poem towards expansiveness, this ladder becomes scaffolding for others and it becomes the means by which the speaker is born: “before I descend / The ladder of my mother.”
Connections are also made between people and their histories and the unduly aggressive behaviour of John Lennon, a side of the star that’s often ignored, is exposed as part of a violent heritage, linking Lennon to his father who is described “trudging out of a factory / Hands dangling like dead animals.” While we may still have warm feelings for the pop music we grew up on, the ugly backstories of the music’s creator is something that Barger forces us to acknowledge. It doesn’t, however, take away our own emotional history. It complicates things. That John Lennon lost his mother at the age of 17 is something offered as explanation for the intensity behind his music: “Sing the dead mother, master, phony / Like nobody has done.” Lennon’s superstar lifestyle is also on display and the word “phony,” which his killer used to describe him, also touches upon the abusiveness towards his wives. Sweet, tender and brutal. “And always the hero staggers.”
The absence of the opening stanza becomes a bigger absence at the very end: “Listening hard / Because I love him [...] I still would never hear.” Hear what, we might wonder. This ambiguous ending leaves room for depth that a reader can supply. In the Q&A at a Don Domanski reading at Dalhousie in 2008, John Wall Barger asks “how can you say something directly without being sentimental?” Domanski replies “Let’s say that you’re dealing with an emotional subject. A loss of a dear loved one […] we kind of end up being children when confronted with loss. That’s normal. When you’re writing of something that may smack of sentimentality, you’re going to have to focus on something deeper than that.” I think the depths in Trying on the Walrus Costume… is how the fabric of time weaves us into the interconnected beings that we are. We emerge into a selfhood which is a reweaving of the cultures, people and worlds around us.
“A long long time ago I learned not to not pick a subject to write about because I found it too confining,” Domanski says in the same 2008 talk. (It’s on Youtube and full disclosure here: I was watching it to prepare for a talk on Domanski when I happened upon John Wall Barger in the audience. I’m happy to bring this random encounter into this review.) It may be that Barger took this idea and has run with it towards poetry that’s beautiful, memorable and written concisely… about a great many things.
Kevin Spenst (he/him) is the author of Ignite, Jabbering with Bing Bong, and Hearts Amok: a Memoir in Verse (all with Anvil Press) and over a dozen chapbooks with the three most recent: Recto Verso Chez the Devil’s Printers (cowritten with Josh Pitre for Collusion Books), A Video Tape Swaddled in Purple Wool (845 Press) and Sand in the Bed. (a holm with the Alfred Gustav Press). His most recent writing has appeared in the anthologies Event 50: Collected Notes on Writing and Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing. His book launch during the pandemic was featured in a book about creative practices: The Creative Instigator's Handbook. He writes chapbook reviews for subTerrain magazine, teaches creative writing at Simon Fraser University and he lives in Vancouver on unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) territory.