Anxious Words Under Scrutiny

Reviewed by Philip Miletic

Gary Barwin’s and Ken Babstock’s latest books of poetry share a similar anxiety towards (the lack of/threat to) imagination in poetry, about its limits and its potential (within those limits). In each book, there is a exploration of this struggle to rejuvenate imagination within the current social milieu, although each poet take a vastly different approach and subject.

A “follow-up” to Porcupinity of the Stars, moon baboon canoe pays a greater attention to writing than Porcupinity, and writing itself is more central to Barwin’s book than Babstock’s. Poems like “postcard,” “parade,” and especially “sonnet” express a self-conscious––and anxious–awareness of words as representations: “a postcard from my mother/ is placed under the lens. . . . wish you were easier to see . . . you weren’t really there . . . you are coloured dots / fields of inky texture . . . I’ll never love anything / as much as I love / this poem” (“Postcard”). But what appears to be a dead end flowers into a love of poetry and its limitations. Whereas Porcupinity seeks a comfort in the struggle and confusion of textual expression, moon baboon canoe is more about that very struggle and the coming to terms with the inability to fully capture what is being represented, that these limitations open unto a new world. Barwin uses the image of the hummingbird, whose wings are “on the luminous verge / of the beginning and the end” (“two hummingbirds”), to continue similar tensions between opposites. This blurring of opposites bring about illuminations in “a constellation of lines” (“seapod microfiche”). moon baboon canoe is both a solemn acknowledgement of the limitations of language and a celebration of poetry’s ability to create something new out of these seeming dead-ends.

Ken Babstock’s On Malice is a tremendous collection grappling with surveillance culture that is troubled by anxiety, paranoia, frustration, and anger, all of which passionately shapes the poetic forms of the book. On Malice is divided into four sections, the first three dealing with particular modes of surveillance: listening in, looking in, and play. The last section, mining vocabulary from John Donne’s theological defence of suicide, is a defence of disconnecting from networks––a metaphorical suicide. It’s a conclusion that accretes over the course of the entire book, Babstock criticizing not only the surveillers but those of us who are willingly surveilled. Babstock retorts, “We can claim indifference but that only makes us into / a bargain.” Our indifference blinds us to the fact that we allow ourselves to become “a correction in the architecture,” that we willingly accept the categorization of social network profiles. The result creates an architecture that privileges anticipation over imagination: “it would seem the most extremely / heightened anticipation appears / to diminish the capacity to imagine.” On Malice, however, is not a lamentation that gives up and turns away; it is a dialogic excavation of ghosts, noise, interrupted messages in search of the restoration of imagination within surveillance culture, a text that pushes readers to think critically and imaginatively about their place within the social media milieu.


This review “Anxious Words Under Scrutiny” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 107-108.

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