Essential Contingencies, or the Verbs Behind All Nouns

  • Johanna Skibsrud
    The Nothing That Is: Essays on Art, Literature and Being. Book*hug (purchase at
  • John Barton
    We Are Not Avatars: Essays, Memoirs, Manifestos. Palimpsest Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Gregory Betts

I grow disenchanted when writers talk about poetry as if it were a singular phenomenon. The model of linguistic effects they call upon inevitably refers to a very limited band of what has been done, dismissive of the fringes of the form where the future is constantly being reinvented. Perhaps this is why John Barton’s book of essays about his life, thoughts, and experiences as a gay male author in Canada feels less disenchanting. He is not defining poetry. He is writing about his experiences of poetry. All the nouns in his essays—the books, the forms, the author functions, the poetics—are understood as collections of verbs ever shifting and moving and subject to myriad dynamic forces. Whether you like his poems or not, whether you agree with his insights into the art form or not, there is no denying that he is aware of the process by which he came to writing, and of the diverse influences—from his body to his mentors—that shaped his writing and his thinking.

The essays in We Are Not Avatars are grounded in public facts (like HIV/AIDS, Emily Carr’s paintings, and the Canadian landscape) and personal experiences (like reciting poetry while swimming, what certain poems mean to him, and the struggle to write despite chronic pain). I like especially the moments when Barton conveys how his mentors, including Joseph Brodsky and Anne Szumigalski, models of “intuitive mentorship,” showed him how to read and live like a poet. These are biographical facts, and this factual basis for his poetry is ultimately what makes him not an avatar. Poetry, it is implied, is a process emergent from a band of essential contingencies. When he says “writing was one way to recover or repatriate experience,” his mentor Szumigalski suggests instead that “through writing I recovered from experience.” It is a mark of honesty and lyric self-exposure that Barton documents and demonstrates the movement of his learning.

This tension is not yet reconciled in Johanna Skibsrud’s The Nothing That Is. She writes about “the West” as if or in hopes it were an irreducible thing, a noun not a verb, and turns to especially American culture, poetry, film, art, and theatre to help illuminate that thing. As the title suggests, though, her interrogation of poetry by the likes of Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, and George Oppen, and other cultural artifacts from Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) to James Marsh’s Man on Wire (2008), demonstrates that such a thing is at best slippery, seen only in glimpses through the play of shadows. She turns to poetry as a special kind of negation (“poetry or literary language doesn’t actually produce anything”) in order to establish a juxtaposition with material reality. Poetry, for her, undoes meaning and achieves its imperative function in this negative ontology: “Poetry must allow us, in other words, to pursue ourselves as strangers.”

I appreciate the endeavour and the turn to poets (especially experimental poets) to think through the philosophical problem of presence, self-knowledge, and being in an age of mediated disaster. I especially appreciate the appearance of a few Canadians in the mix (such as Erín Moure and Anne Carson), though fewer white folks might have helped shift the project beyond the frame she seeks to decentre. Furthermore, I also appreciate how these essays work as an extension of Skibsrud’s thinking through her father’s experiences in America’s war in Vietnam (documented in her novel The Sentimentalist), and how that conflict participated in or exacerbated a legacy of displacement from ideas of the truth. As I mentioned at the start of this review, however, attempts to specify what poetry is, even in the light of troubling ontological and imperialist dislocution, feel automatically limiting to me—and invariably send me searching for exceptions to whatever rule is being proposed. In this case, I have spent too much time with activists, for whom poetry helps to establish and maintain the space of dissidence, BIPOC and/or LGBTQ2S authors, for whom poetry helps to establish access to recognized subjectivity (and there I’m thinking more of the perlocutionary act of Fred Moten than Charles Taylor-style recognition liberalism), and avant-garde writers, for whom poetry helps to invent new spaces for new kinds of possibilities for reality and the imagination, to accept that poetry serves each in the same way. Poetry is a chant in a public square emboldening the crowd, a swerve of icons on a pirated billboard that invents a counterenvironment, a blunt script stripping rhetoric and changing laws—and also all the other ways that poetry actually does produce something.

This review “Essential Contingencies, or the Verbs Behind All Nouns” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Feb. 2020. Web.

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