The Great Divide

  • Beth Goobie
    breathing at dusk. Coteau Books (purchase at
  • Barry Dempster
    Late Style. Pedlar Press (purchase at
  • Jamie Reid
    A Temporary Stranger. Anvil Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Dancy Mason

Each of these poetry collections is concerned with the ways poetry can overcome divisions—between life and death, between the authentic and the fake, between, above all, disparate ideas of the self, both in others and in ourselves. For Jamie Reid, Barry Dempster, and Beth Goobie, the poet and their poetry can act as a nexus between such disparate aspects of the world, even if that position comes with a price.

Jamie Reid’s A Temporary Stranger is divided into three parts. The first section, “Homages,” explores the styles of various old poets, both co-opting their imagery and mingling it with Reid’s own poetic sensibilities; these homages tend to underline the continual shift in poetry between the original and the borrowed, between the poet and the selves that have come before him or her. The final section, “Recollections,” is a series of essays that are largely about late writers in Vancouver’s literary scene (Reid, too, passed away in 2015). In these recollections, Reid positions himself as the titular temporary stranger, observing personal friends from a broader viewpoint and toggling between their intimate lives and, as with the first section, their cultural legacy after death. However, Reid is never stronger than in the book’s middle section, “Poems.” “Poems” is composed of what Reid calls “fake” poems, which highlight the ways we “cannot duplicate the quality of human sensual experience,” an authentic experience that he associates with the moving current of life, with the “flow of water and the waving light.” Yet although this section points out artifice and the difficulties of writing poetry, the poems (to use his language) “persist” and carve out a space around the authentic; the collection as a whole explores the poet himself as a moving, authentic current acting as a link between the living and the dead.

Like Reid, Barry Dempster is preoccupied with the effects of community, heritage, and death on the individual self, and in Late Style the poet also acts as a channel for these currents. Yet unlike Reid, Dempster focuses not on the merging of two disparate parts within the poet, but on the poet’s ultimate loneliness as the broker of these currents. In “Genealogy,” the individual poet reflects on his communal heritage, writing “I’d be alone if not for my people / My emerald mother, County Corked.” Throughout Late Style, we sense that the poet is alone even as he is crushed (though comforted) by the weight of his long-gone ancestry, even as the world is transmitted through him; his perspective allows him to bring together disparate perspectives and pasts, but it also leaves him lonely. In “Elegy for Witches and Moles,” the death of Dempster’s grandmother transmits further familial sorrow as he writes, “Death was so much more than dressing up. Where would misery go now.” The silent answer, it seems, is into the poet. It is only when Dempster imagines his own death in “Azucar” that he moves from nexus to flowing substance himself, as he imagines mortality, “squeezing me inside the tunnel to the slimness of a credit card.” The conduit has become the current—but where will his misery go now? Late Style takes comfort in its inheritance, but that inheritance is also a burden.

Dempster’s poetry is a testament to the difficulties of being a poetic conduit and to the burdens of reconciling different pasts and selves. Beth Goobie’s breathing at dusk, however, represents both the heights poetry can reach as a nexus of experience, and the immense strains that often surround poetry. Her poems toggle back and forth between sites of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of both her father and, more implicitly, her mother. Throughout the collection, Goobie traces her repression and later recollection of the abuse and then, in small steps, her way forward from it. breathing at dusk thus carries within it many selves, some suppressed, others only in traces, others emerging. The second poem of the collection, “landscape,” details the abuse as something far away, divided from the speaker—we are dropped into a “1968 guelph childhood dining room” and watch as the child Goobie follows her father’s instructions to dissociate from her abuse. By the time we get to “breathing at dusk,” Goobie has not triumphed over her abuse, but she has found a threshold state, the liminal, peaceful dusk that allows “a dreamer’s breathing approaching sleep” but also “poems that speak themselves out of the ground / release all that has been held down.” She cannot undo what has been done to her, cannot fully reconcile nor fully forgive, but the inbetween state that is the soil of poetry stirs memory, speaks words, and helps her cross over.

Although each of these collections is structured through certain divisions, poetry stands as the centre of these paradoxes, these gaps between past and present, self and other. Poetry is a way for Reid to seek the real, for Dempster to contact his communal past, and for Goobie to construct a future. Although these connections are made with difficulty—often heartbreaking difficulty—they persist.

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