These collections by Gary Barwin, Robyn Sarah, and Richard Harrison possess an exemplary ability to denaturalize our assumptions about elegiac writing. By injecting a doubly bound sense of élan into sorrowful subject matter, they demonstrate the ways by which poiesis can disclose the fullness of loss and revivify what it means to undertake the work of mourning.
Harrison’s Governor General’s Award-winning collection, On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood, is concerned with the inheritances between fathers and sons: “My father taught me a poem is not its words, but the ringing it leaves behind.” The force of the text is derived from a death knell, specifically the loss of Harrison’s father to vascular dementia in 2011, a devastating event whose intensities, for Harrison, mirror the destruction later engendered by the Alberta flood of 2013. The waters, which nearly swept away his father’s ashes, prompted Harrison to repeat the work of mourning. The focus of the text, then, is not so much on the values of patriarchy or Oedipality in themselves, but rather our memories and impressions of these steadfast ideologies in the wake of their absences. This is particularly true of “Skype,” one of the most poignant poems in the book, in which the speaker dreams of a technologically mediated conversation with his dead but stereotypically silent father: “My father will never say he is sad, / but I can tell that he has not yet finished mourning my loss.” Harrison deconstructs the labour of loss, exploding the question of who mourns whom, while interrogating masculinities. The poet is thus critical and elegiac in the same breath, carving out for readers a “paradise / on the other side of criticism”—a site of ambiguous splendour that locates joy in the reading and rereading of one’s own life.
In this sense, Harrison finds a great deal of kinship in the prolific works of Robyn Sarah. Sarah’s Wherever We Mean to Be—which contains representative selections spanning her career from 1975 to 2015—shows the multiplicity of meanings that can be gathered from a careful minimalism. Her genius lies in the ability to collapse the complications of worldliness into instances that are accessible and open. Examined closely, however, the sparse language of the ordinary is an idiom eerily evacuated of egoistic excess. We see this vividly in “A Prayer for Prayer”:
God! I am dead empty.
Pour me full again.
I am leaden; lighten me.
My cables are cut.
Here identity is refused in the same moment in which it is begged for. The first-person singular pronoun is caught between weight and weightlessness, grounded only by the urgency of the utterance; we are faced with exclamatory confusions rather than a speech act of devotion or earnest request—a prayer without prayer gesturing toward the uncanniness of religiosity. Here each line grieves over its own brevity while simultaneously bursting with a kind of renewed life, as is also the case in “The Trust”:
A good death, it’s a gift
to the living. To be remembered
when we’re gone, to remember our dead,
we know are to be desired. But to be
remembered by our dead! that
is something else—a trust,
Caught between the blandness and beauty of day-to-day minutiae, the many poetic voices at play together constitute a sigh-like fugue delighted by the imperative that we “be grateful for neutral days.” The quotidian is, moreover, chafed in its flustered appearances; for Sarah, it is not the case that the poet must translate everydayness into the idiom of poetry—poems are not tools with which one can disclose hidden beauty. On the contrary, the thingliness of things is already, in itself, a production of bewildering aesthetics.
So too is Gary Barwin attuned to this serene weirdness, but in radically disparate ways. Barwin’s notorious brand of surrealism attends to the laughter provoked by ecological anxieties. His title, No TV for Woodpeckers, is a nod to an undue philosophical propensity to concurrently belittle and fetishize animals and their apparent lack of representational capacities. In other words, there is no screen upon which the woodpecker can project its own desires, no symbolic order for the animal to traverse as it attempts to fill some originary lacuna. Barwin turns the pathos of this parochial philosophy on its head, beginning with an epigraph from Lucretius, as translated by W. E. Leonard: “[O]ur pauper speech must find / Strange terms to fit the strangeness of the thing.” Even if there were a black mirror over which a woodpecker could swoon when faced with its own image, the human is already condemned to the shortcomings of language: “we make the forests / but they suck.” Although the text is, in this sense, an elegy for humanism, it is nevertheless punctuated by a kind of slapstick whose attention to sound and linguistic play is as discombobulating as it is innovative. While the efficacy of language as a descriptive, world-creating medium is a non-starter in itself, there is still hope to be found in experimentation as Barwin employs an eclectic mix of poetic frameworks from conceptualism and flarf. “Needleminer,” for example, recentres the diverse wildlife that persists on the margins of the stereotypically industrial city of Hamilton, Ontario. By introducing a catalogue of species into pre-written texts, by way of OuLiPo, Barwin reimagines Hamilton as a haven for ecological diversity—a kind of materialist reality-testing that is as luscious as it is anti-capitalist.
No TV for Woodpeckers is, finally, a daring venture into the inner workings of inherited cultural trauma—namely, the inheritances of being Jewish. In a meditation on the infamous vampire from Sesame Street, Barwin’s speaker asks:
What are the numbers, Count? Your Transylvanian cackle seems Yiddish to me, your unhinged delight, your bitter joy enumerates the world, an inventory of what’s there, what hasn’t been destroyed.
There is no media that can wholly distract from loss. There are, however, modes of aestheticizing these catalogues of lack such that they are otherwise than elegiac. This is as apparent in the writing of Harrison and Sarah as it is in that of Barwin. These poets offer fleeting realities which, in the instant, help to remediate our own—a kind of poiesis that Barwin refers to as the production of “alien babies”:
Rub one on your head or let it make a melancholy wall . . . I’m an alien baby, too. At least the part of me that is already alien baby. The rest of me is spring,
summer, TV, wilted vegetables and hope.