Forms of Passage

Reviewed by Catherine Owen

Travel is always a challenging subject matter for poetry, begging the question of how long it takes, or perhaps should take, to steep in a particular locale for poems of merit to emerge. David Zieroth definitely treads the line between creating flitting sketches of itinerant places and moments, and etching deeper engagements with existence that emerge from the stimuli of a temporal encounter or unfamiliar terrain. In Albrecht Dürer & Me, Zieroth gifts us with a wide range of travelogue-lyrics, spurred on by the typical “spots of time” the generous-eyed traveler attends to—art, history, landscape—but conveyed in the delicate, sensitive ways only a fully “clicked in” poet can.

The poems are presented in clean stanzas, pared of most articles (“child takes” or “red hair of the guide”) and without terminal periods. Both elisions can prove initially irksome but over the course of the book turn almost soothing. The strongest pieces are those that enter commemoration for deceased artists like George Trakl, Dürer, and Thomas Bernhard. Sometimes observations verge on the banal as in the speaker’s noting of the names undergoing erasure on tombstones in “Central Cemetery” but are more often droll (“time is tough on noses”) or perceptive—“the gift of art/to reflect and reveal each viewer accurately.” Zieroth’s poetic vocation was launched in the 80s, an era dominated by accessible narrative-based poetry, often dealing with work and family as in the poetry of Sandy Shreve and Tom Wayman. It is a style he continues to unfold and one that produces equal amounts of potent detail— “later we eat fish from the crystal lake/and under the calm of local wine speak of/the last war here.” The subtle consonance and frequently well-placed line breaks establish a stirringly evocative environment of witness. There is also a tendency to include too many prosy explanatory clauses: “this letter written to console/the widow of Italo Svevo, dead/nine years after a sepia print presents him and his wife on their anniversary (30 July 1919).” Such an excess might have been more sleekly contextualized to consider what the reader rather than the writer requires. The back cover blurb states that Zieroth “unearths the knowledge that can be realized only by leaving home.” This is possibly so but it remains more challenging to glean lingering epiphanies from the touch and go motions of the tourist, so kudos to Zieroth for presenting such a wealth of entrances.

John Barton, like Zieroth, rose to recognition of sorts in the poetry world in the eighties though his work seems to be receiving less acclaim as Zieroth’s obtains more. Barton, whom one might call one of the “New Formalists” (though outside of the Starnino-acknowledged camp) — there are sonnets, glosas, villanelles, rondeaus and couplets, and even a numbered palindrome in Polari — continues to write consistently compelling poems. Among them, “La Vie Boheme” (likely the only Canadian poem with a recurring Lazy Susan in it), “Les Beaux Arts, Montreal” with its haunting lines: “Later I still feel nothing. Later still, I don’t make a fresh start./why sheets are turned down with tenderness is left unasked,” “Into the Wild” for Diana Brebner, “Closing the Gate of Sorrow” whose five glosa lines are drawn from Gilgamesh, “Verlaine’s Life,” and “Criminal Codes,” a fusing of form and the textures of gay life that reminds one of Thom Gunn—“marrow / stripped of caution in crammed bathhouses one / dresses down for, no condoms worn if lust / shuns last barriers to love . . . your hard-on stunning / mute depths.” Barton, unlike Zieroth, can obfuscate his subject matter unnecessarily at times. The sounds in “ghosting the fictive/no terror so restive/it can’t coast among brittle stars” are lovely yet the abstractions weaken, become weird Ashberian blips. Some of his titles are goofy in a way that suggests a pop culture yearning á la McGimpsey without the punch line follow up (“If you want closure in your relationship start with your legs”—one of the Diagram Prizes for oddest book title of the year—or “Maj. Tom’s Cyberspace Oddity.”) And the over-used abbreviation “‘til” is affected. Still, quibbles. Barton, more eloquent and elegant than our era often likes to celebrate can appear like the whale in “Watching the Whale” whose “brief white hint of . . . abundance” slips “beyond our grasp.”


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