Barwin explores the possibilities of language
POETRY Book of poetry an invitation into the strange, marvellous world of words, real or invented
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.