Translating Desire

Reviewed by Andrew Lesk

George Stanley’s central concern is clearly suggested by the title, and it’s a sad and somewhat dour place to be, this post-desire place. In tandem with being or becoming invisible as an object of desire as he ages, Stanley’s poetry also ruminates on the process of making poetic meaning itself when the impetus—desire—abates.

This process is often difficult but necessary, since living out life’s final stanza(s) lends an urgency to understanding how to write a testament to that life. The poet “would like to read the poem / that departs from truth / at the cost of death / invisible to all.” What is invisible here? Clearly, the poet knows it is himself, living in a world little noticed by the youths he admires; and it is the poem too, being created, always in process; a process never shared but whose final output, the poem, becomes the “kindly stature / disclosing opening out / the eternal world where the others live.” This is the gift that the poet (considered in the collection also as someone writing a detective poem) can offer others, having lived through the mysteries of desire, having not yet, not ever solved the pull to beauty, to youth, to the consolations of old age.

As if to contrast Stanley’s languid elegiacs, David Zomparelli is that youth speaking back to senior (gay?) men on the Skytrain, in a poem that (after a quick “Vancouver Sunrise”) opens this excellent, exuberant collection. From scoping the restaurants and denizens of the West End, to the bashers who trickle down to Davie Street, Zomparelli’s sharp glances at the changing circumstances of queer life are anything but languorous. In a presumed “found poem from Craigslist,” the seeker wonders “how can I find the person i wanted here”; and the forgotten comma between “wanted” and “here” suggests that “here,” temporally dislocated, could be anywhere. He seems to ask, “How can you summon up a person you earlier cruised on the street?” concluding that “I lost you before it was over.” The speed of life on Davie mirrors the speed of the internet, where a missed connection is already a foregone conclusion.

Zomparelli knows that “Peep shows are so 20th century,” as selling and consuming and desiring has taken on new, ephemeral forms; so, “[w]iFight it?” But he is wise, too, to know that self-reflection, after the rains painted Vancouver skies “a different colour,” is necessary; and so the closer, “[t]omorrow,” settles for the week, this week, and eventually, today. He closes his eyes to “see the world in which would have been”—been what? You? The one who has “one mutual friend with yourself”? The party, having us all run pell-mell up and down Davie, leaves Zomparelli, leaves us, with understated satisfaction, at the best of excited, hyper poetics travels, here on the Best Coast.

In a collection that might easily be considered “the best,” not just on this coast but in Canada, John Barton reveals why he doesn’t really have a peer in queer poetry. It’s difficult to consider even reviewing this Selectedcollection, given Barton’s thirty years of writing what R. M. Vaughan, in the introduction, calls “the poetries of John Barton.” And Vaughan usurps what I might have to say about Barton’s very fine work in this collection, one that “offers the reader everything from skinny, sexy erotic hymns to form-bending diary prose poems toJ’accuse! Rants in ghazals to polyphonic post-Pop queer theory dialogues.” He rightly concludes, “there is no such thing as a cowardly John Barton poem.”

And the poems do not shy away from the material condition of the body, a theme in this selection. In a very bold counterpoint to earlier, nationalist poetry, Barton writes of “This body: its constitution / beyond amendment and spastically tense, the upper and lower chambers of the heart loud with perpetual ringing,” calling attention to the body in the Canadian body politic. Disparate Canadians, flung wide across the varied landscapes, are bodies arrayed in “loose constellations / frayed networks of light ablur in the wheeling / night skies.” Barton shows how personalized desire (of any orientation) is metonymic of this country’s varied populace who also discretely desire, but who often never see or experience others on the east coast or west coast or points between, but who nevertheless are free to choose, who desire to be here, wherever here is (as Northrop Frye might say), wherever and whatever we imagine here to be. Barton’s (poetic) body is inclusive and imaginative, highlighting not jingoistic impulses but rather the best ideals of our body politic. What a gift to us all.

This review “Translating Desire” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 123-24.

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