read yesterday afternoon at the Dusty Owl to a small but engaged and attentive audience. For an insightful entry on John’s poetry, please visit the May 14 entry of my friend Marcus McCann’s blog.
John read poems from his book Hypothesis (Anansi, 2001), poems from his forthcoming book Hym (Brick Books), some ekphrastic poems based on the art of Paul Cadmus and new work.
What I particularly enjoyed were the unusual combinations of words that added up to form a memorable image or took us in a surprising direction. Especially fun were what he referred to as his botched up glosas (sometimes using five lines from another poet’s poem, instead of four) and a botched up Chant Royal, a variant of the ballad form which is supposed to include a refrain but in this case, John forgot it, which he said made the poem a little less royal.
I have to say that John Barton’s work, like a lot of other poetry, didn’t really get my attention, until the launch of Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2007), but faced with many distractions and other stuff to read, I didn’t read anything further of John’s. The reading at the Owl was a great opportunity to give his work a fair listen.
I found the poems to be compassionate, loving and playful. I like poetry that succeeds in writing about sex and about love without the cheese. It’s not easy to do. There aren’t enough romantic poems about men loving men, are there? John Barton, I think, succeeds in writing a modern day romantic lyric love poetry between men. And this is fabulous. And then there is the fact that he deals with HIV/AIDS in his poems without sounding overly tragic, too preachy or didactic.
John places the subjects of his poems who have HIV/AIDS in commonplace settings and in hospitals and hospices. It is a realistic and not overly romantic or gothic portrayal. I go back and find him in one of my favourite anthologies, Written in the Skin: A Poetic Response to AIDS (Insomniac Press, 1998). Basically, the man’s work has been on my shelf for years and has just been sitting there waiting for me to discover it, which is what happens to me frequently with writers.
Here’s one of the poems John read from Hypothesis:
There are no pockets in the shroud.
The Living Room
Their rubbish alone was left.
He was a vacant lot,
he had become an exemption.
The squares of his mind were empty.
--P.K. Page, “In Memoriam”
At the drop-in clinic near the centre
of town, I namelessly drop off
cotton shirts wrinkled as grey skin
to be slung on hangers and rifled through
by men whose flesh thins under the shaking
force of their scapulae, the deft
articulation of fingers, a memory
as they thumb through gaunt fabric—
the colours so bereft
their rubbish alone was left.
Even as I drive away, a man buttons
wash-worn cotton about his body
as it vanishes, ribs rising through
jaundiced skin like stains as he breathes
haltingly, or so I think, driving away
with my fears intact, overwrought
about whatever might or might not be
deadly in my own blood, haunted
by my one parting thought:
He was a vacant lot.
Against my will, I slip inside
his flesh. Its slim vitality sits
amply on my shoulders as I drive uptown
every remaining bit of pleasure to be
had from it an undiscovered country
lying within reach, vague satisfaction
of desires unable to die
with him, the body a cairn, fog
lifting as I pause at an intersection.
He had become an exemption.
His world opens up: his death is my death
his love my love, the men he kissed
and held are men like us who’ve passed
through the ordinary arms of several others
dates in loose cotton shirts who drove us
home after the movies, each entreaty
to love made on nights when warm was wanted.
Guys who made us feel safe not cautious.
One foolhardly night he fleetingly felt free.
The squares of his mind were empty.