In “The Gulls,” the opening poem of Barry Dempster’s 2010 collection Blue Wherever, the protagonist’s idyllic musings are interrupted by the blast of a gull’s ragged caw, the sudden sense that nature
hates you without regard to good intentions
or poetic haze, whatever you call
yourself at your most vague
demanding to be left alone
with its hunger and duty.
It’s the type of jolt many of the economically comfortable, existentially discomfited speakers in Dempster’s new book Invisible Dogs could sorely use. Despite the persistent use of second-person pronouns, these are decidedly inward-facing poems consumed with the minutiae of being Of-A-Certain-Age, “as far away / from mystery as biology can get.” Dempster’s lyric eye freezes time, allowing acute contemplation of the small pleasures and humiliations of sliding past middle age, but it sacrifices uncertainty. There’s sometimes a sense that greater insights might be flashing by in the periphery of that eye, but Dempster’s speakers are seldom allowed to be disoriented, to present an experience that hasn’t already been picked over for profundity. These poems suffer from a lack of personal or political context, a compelling raison d’être beyond the moment. Their voices connect to nothing outside of their immediate relationships (as in a cycle of “She Said/He Said” poems, which reverse the usual sequence of that cliché but do little else to distance themselves from it) and their own discomforts. There is little struggle in these poems, but a lot of detailed squirming.
A two-time Governor General’s Award nominee, Dempster has an enviable command of language, and to be sure there’s pleasure to be had in the craftsmanship on display, in its sly humour, in pocketing perfect descriptions when they arise: “He kept on caressing, making the darkness of her most hidden / parts gleam like teeth marks on a plum.” Many of the better poems such as “Skunk Hour,” a Robert Lowell riff satirizing self-mythologizing dinner-party anecdotes, wittily jab at the swollen egos of Dempster’s peers yet find pathos in the fact such egos swell out of fear of social irrelevance. In the moments when Dempster projects his voice a bit outward, toward the divine in “God-Sized Ache,” toward nature in the faintly John Newlove-esque “Kill Site,” these poems become more effective at leaving something behind in the reader’s mind, some little splinters of phrase that dig in.
I get the sense that after 2011’s Dying a Little, wherein he dealt extensively with illness and grief, Dempster wanted to consider the matter of aging as something other than a way station before death. Invisible Dogs is thus in some ways a more difficult project because its focus on the quotidian details of getting old lacks the dramatic heft associated with death narratives. The lower stakes contribute to the impression that this is ultimately a minor book in the catalogue of the prolific Dempster, but one with certain laid back charms long-time readers of his work may appreciate.
JM Francheteau is a rural transplant based in Ottawa. Recent poems have appeared in CV2, ottawater and the chapbook A pack of lies (Dog Bites Cameron, 2013.) He co-organizes the Ottawa Zine Off! series and blogs at jmfrancheteau.wordpress.com.
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