Lessons in Style and Substance

Reviewed by Dale Tracy

There’s facts and how to tell them, knowledge and styles of living it.

Renaissance Normcore’s interest in the sartorial is an interest in boundaries. These poems compose space within space like “a cell with a semi-permeable / membrane inside an organism / inside an ecosystem.” When Adèle Barclay’s speaker confides in “Our Beauty Was Lost to the Algorithm,” “I don’t know what to do / with all that lives inside of living,” she discloses that more is withheld—or unheld: “The body hides in a shuttered poem” that investigates what bodies and poems “can and cannot hold.” In “Peacock against the Cold Edit of Reality TV,” the speaker notes her own “soft skin / that I’d invite you to touch / if it weren’t for this screen.” As screen, the paper takes on harder, less permeable qualities, but even the soft skin in these poems could function as a semi-permeable barrier to who is held within—much like the remarkable titles Barclay’s poems wear. The imaginary screen invokes the collection’s references to famous names tied to the style of contemporary times, but also to names of people the speaker knows but readers don’t: the available public figure and the inaccessible personal life, the normcore accessibility and the voluminous Renaissance layers, the admirable balance of frankness and the unrevealed, showing one space to show that there is another still inside it.

Facts and letters make sense within systems, and this abecedarium “let[s] a different system / take shape in our mouths”: “There are so many ways / to find what you’re looking for.” Bart Vautour suggests that poetry is a system for understanding that brings factual coincidence into meaningfulness. The Truth about Facts subtly and satisfyingly illuminates already existing connections in the seemingly far-flung, like that Arthur Holmes’ mother

shared a name

with a well-known

plant collector

from Massachusetts

who appears later in the collection, with quotation from her other art: “She had a system of aesthetics / far superior to mine.” These poems cast poetry as a sort of code potentially written in anagram, semaphore, swear word, asteroids, or invisible ink: “The essential properties for a secret ink / are similar to those of a robust poetics.” The facts are marked by the one who knows them, so that the poem “Facts123456” exists within “the current state of CanLit” and gives readers the hypothetical of “open[ing] to page 666 of my Oxford Universal Dictionary,” the 1955 edition the poem uses to define “fact” because, the collection’s marks of the personal suggest, that’s the one that was there. Though one fact leads to another, Vautour’s collection—contextualized, deliberate, espousing an ethics, engaging a “choreography of witness”—is not much like a dictionary or any other search engine.

This review “Lessons in Style and Substance” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 28 Aug. 2020. Web.

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