Bar­win ex­plores the pos­si­bil­i­ties of lan­guage

PO­ETRY Book of po­etry an in­vi­ta­tion into the strange, mar­vel­lous world of words, real or in­vented

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - BARB CAREY

Word­play is para­mount for Hamil­ton’s Gary Bar­win.

He has pub­lished more than 20 books, mostly po­etry, but also chil­dren’s books and a novel, “Yid­dish for Pi­rates,” which was a fi­nal­ist for last year’s Sco­tia­bank Giller Prize and is cur­rently short­listed for the Leacock Medal. The jury cited its “ju­bi­lant and al­lur­ing lan­guage” — and “No TV for Wood­peck­ers” of­fers the same in­ven­tive, ex­u­ber­ant lan­guage.

But it’s also more ex­per­i­men­tal and chal­leng­ing.

Bar­win in­vites us into a strange but mar­vel­lous world of words, and it helps to keep a dic­tionary (or Google) handy. Of­ten I thought that he was mak­ing up words (which he also does), only to dis­cover that, for in­stance, spir­ket­ting is a nau­ti­cal term and there re­ally is a bird called the ful­vous whistling-duck.

The po­ems in the first sec­tion of­fer a por­trait of his home­town that sub­verts its rep­u­ta­tion as “Steel­town.”

Bar­win cel­e­brates the abun­dance and va­ri­ety of its na­tive flora and fauna, from birds to but­ter­flies and snakes to wild­flow­ers. The po­ems un­fold in a litany of lyri­cal and evoca­tive names such as “lazuli bunting,” “black-crowned night heron” and “north­ern cloudy­wing.”

The po­ems in this sec­tion were com­posed ac­cord­ing to an elab­o­rate scheme, which Bar­win ex­plains in his notes at the end of the book. In­spired by the di­ver­sity of lo­cal wildlife, he took the idea that “species mod­ify the en­vi­ron­ment by their pres­ence” and “re­pop­u­lated” pre-ex­ist­ing po­ems, “sub­sti­tut­ing the names for all of the nouns and many of the verbs ... and my words be­came in­volved in a more com­plex process of ac­cre­tion, sub­sti­tu­tion and cross­breed­ing.” If this sounds com­plex, well, it is — and it re­sults in mind-bend­ing lines such as “There weren’t birch skele­toniz­ers to bul­rush del­toid duskbat hiss.” But that pe­cu­liar lex­i­con is a re­minder of lan­guage’s in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Else­where, Bar­win ex­plores those pos­si­bil­i­ties in var­i­ous forms, in­clud­ing the son­net (he cheek­ily un­der­mines the tra­di­tion by splic­ing lines from spam emails with quotes from Shake­speare). He also pays heart­felt trib­ute to lan­guage as tes­ti­mony. In the poem “Se­same Street’s Count Is My Grand­fa­ther,” he writes: “Your Tran­syl­va­nian cackle/seems Yid­dish to me, your un­hinged de­light your bit­ter/joy enu­mer­ates the world, an in­ven­tory of what’s there/what hasn’t been de­stroyed.”

Bar­bara Carey is a Toronto writer and the Toronto Star’s po­etry colum­nist.


“No TV for Wood­peck­ers,” by Gary Bar­win, Buckrider Books/Wol­sak and Wynn, 106 pages, $19.95.


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