Breathing and Noticing: Brian Bartlett’s Ringing Here and There

Corresponding to the astrological calendar, Ringing Here and There begins in spring with April (perhaps from aperire, the Latin “to open” as in buds, as in beginnings) and continues with the satisfactions of phenology, charting the changes in plants and wildlife as season follows season. Subtitled “A Nature Calendar,” and inspired by Thoreau and other diarists, poet Brian Bartlett’s new prose offering of 366 entries (including one for the extra day in a leap year) ranges from prose poems to collages, from observations of the ways of birds, forests and sea shores to the ways of human beings, from a child’s voice to a memory of another child’s voice. While to most of us the idea of dailiness does not correspond to exciting or even, necessarily, to interesting, this is where Bartlett shows us how patient observation proves the obverse: if we only look, as he does, there is much every day to see in the world.

Take, for example, the square-foot segment of forest floor that contains

Sphaghum Moss the colour of sea lettuce—spruce cone ridged with sap like dried grey glue—semi-circle of Pixie Cups, tiny red parasols…you could wander for acres & weeks & not find another segment like this—or that—or that— (Nov. 23)

The poet’s ear also plays a role, retrieving voices from memory and favourite books. He tells us in an “Author’s Note” that his decision to restrict each day’s entry to approximately equal-length paragraphs is a constraint originally chosen to fit the demands of Facebook “updates” (not to exceed 420 characters); all were posted there, he says – but not before handwritten drafts had been reworked, keyboarded and reworked again. Constraints clearly have their uses—it’s a truism among poets that obstacles increase the possibilities of perception whether we’re talking about established forms like sonnets and villanelles or postmodern word strings; as Chesterton remarked, “Art consists in limitation.” And a literary/natural history calendar must be manageable in size to be publishable. Still, the sameness to the look of each day’s offering sometimes feels rigid and even though Bartlett’s skill results in polished, and frequently inspired, parts, the eye of the reader appreciates variation.

Content-wise, variation abounds: each entry incorporates some reference to the natural world, while allowing many pages/days to read like entries in a commonplace book, with ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information that one comes across or is reminded of in the work of others. Often Bartlett, too, is “likely to start with a quotidian thing, then veer into the wondrous” (as he observed in his Introduction to Earthly Pages by Don Domanski). For May 18, he writes, “This small island is a sponge…I listen to the woodstove fire…Shape-changer to our ears, the fire is a bird struggling…in the pitch-dark outside our window.” Other days consist of collages drawn from works by Chekhov, Dickinson, Hopkins – December 6, for example, from The Book of Job, reads in part: “Iron as straw, bronze as rotten wood. The east wind claps its hands and hisses”—on a day when he might have been thinking of the anniversary of both the Halifax explosion (1917) and the Montreal massacre (1989). Throughout the book, sea shores, forests and birds, as well as the streets of Halifax, loom large—this is Bartlett’s world, the one in which he breathes each day and notices it.


Barbara Myers is an Ottawa writer. She is the author of the poetry collection Slide and has contributed frequently to Arc.



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