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League of Canadian Poets' Review

"Let’s not mince words: the poetry in this collection is as good as it gets in this country. If it seemed a good idea to nominate Barry Dempster’s first book, Fables For Isolated Men (Guernica Editions, 1982) for the Governor General’s Award, it seems a far better idea now that we can see where all that talent and promise has led. There isn’t a dud poem in this book; it’s been scrupulously edited and sequenced; it demonstrates a mastery over a wide variety of forms, from short lyric and lyric/narrative, to serial lyric, dramatic monologue, and prose poem; the mouth music is marvelously mellifluous and the free verse lines carefully chiseled. The man doesn’t make a false step for 168 pages! That’s an accomplishment worth celebrating, and, let’s face it, one few Governor General’s Award winners have actually managed to pull off.

Of course, none of this is news to readers familiar with Mr. Dempster’s previous seven volumes of poetry, or his short stories, novel, or children’s fiction: he’s always been a superior craftsperson. But now we have the evidence of a careful culling of better than twenty-some-odd years to look at, and we can see the evolution of his art, his thought, and his faith in metaphysical and spiritual realities too. The trajectory is enlightening.

If I have one quibble, and this caveat is not to point out a weakness, so much as to point out the degree of concentration in the work, it’s that the poet’s beat is fairly circumscribed. Mr. Dempster is a metaphysician of the soul, a spiritual poet: virtually everything here, even the most domestic and here and now poems, in one way or another, concern spirituality or faith in the divine. I use the word spiritual rather than religious, for while the evidence of the poet’s wide reading in the Christian tradition is definitely there, he is not a doctrinaire poet and there is not a whiff of the monk’s inkwell or dogma anywhere in evidence. As poet John Barton so aptly puts it in his French flap quotation, “Barry Dempster uses his precise command of metaphysical turns of phrase and vivid imagery to explore (italics mine) the nature of belief in the twentieth century, . . .”

And explore he does! He investigates D.H. Lawrence’s noble but doomed pantheistic experiment in communal living; he delves into the evils and shortsightedness of religious fundamentalist zealotry; he pushes language and metaphor always in the direction of what it will reveal about the limits of consciousness and the outer reaches of faith; plays in the penumbra of the ineffable, if you will. And isn’t that, after all, the best language can do, and the most noble pursuit of a poet trying to come to personal terms with evil in our time? His subject is the noblest subject: the question of how to live an authentic and deeply spiritual life in the absence of faith in a single tome or body of dogma.

He’s not beyond self-deprecating wit and humour though, and turns his effulgent light on himself as much as on the great beyond, with delightful results:

We file in, filling the pews
With sensible shoes. A sniff of
Understated lilac perfume.
Fingertips pooling on Bibles.
The organ murmuring like the
Wires in a long-distance call.
(from “Singing,” page 50 )

The sacred and profane are bedfellows in his poems; perhaps that is why they work so well – not just prosodically, or intellectually, or emotionally – though the subtle tonal shifts created by the juxtapositions of the images make us smile, and the soft sibilance of the syllables purr like a well-tuned engine, pistons firing in all the cylinders of line, stanza, and strophe – but because, ultimately, it is the reach of metaphor and the resources of our language that teach us so much about seeing and believing.

Barry Dempster is a magician, and this is one of the finest books of poetry I’ve read this year. I say give the guy the damn prize: he’s more than earned it."

-Richard Stevenson