1315 Sonnets & tantalizing snapshots

Lost Family: A Memoir
by John Barton

Montréal: Véhicule Press (Signal Editions), 2020
$17.95 / 9781550655551

Reviewed by Christopher Levenson

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Whatever one’s final judgment on John Barton’s latest book — and mine is overwhelmingly positive — one thing is clear: it raises a number of important critical issues. Is the medium of poetry suitable for something that calls itself a memoir? Is the sonnet, as displayed here in all its myriad 160 odd variations, a poetic form that we could expect to work well in this medium? And what are the prospects for the long poem in Canada?

Firstly, since many people use the two terms interchangeably so that there is no general agreement as to terminology, how does a memoir differ from an autobiography? As I use the terms, an autobiography is a literal, “true” version of the Bildungsroman, the coming of age novel. It explores the writer’s emotional, mental and spiritual development through childhood and adolescence into adulthood. Its purpose is to discover why their authors came to feel or act as they did and what in their early memories, their family upbringing, shaped the characters they now feel themselves to be. Given enough literary skill anyone could write an autobiography because its interest for the reader resides in the skill and the sensitivity with which events and personalities from the writer’s life are presented and evaluated. Its focus may be on the spiritual, the emotional, the psychological, or on the writer’s intellectual and poetic development. Or, it may do several or all of these things.

A memoir, as I understand the term, tends to be written by someone who is already in the public eye, often a celebrity in politics, sports, business or entertainment. The result, consequently, is often less an exploration than an exploitation, cashing in on a fame or notoriety already established. Memoirs are often ghostwritten which, if my definition is valid, an autobiography cannot be. In that case what Barton has produced here is an autobiography.

Victoria’s poet laureate since 2019, John Barton. Photo by John Preston

But autobiographies come in varying degrees of frankness, and full disclosure is not inevitable. In the case of poetry, increasingly since the 1960s in the work of Robert Lowell, W.D. Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, the so-called Confessional poets, readers have become accustomed to poets using as material for their poetry recognizable, but previously unmentionable, bits of their actual lives, such as abortions, childbirth, mental breakdown, divorce, that were long considered too intimately personal for poetry. In Barton’s case both his frankness in evoking his gay relationships and his painful self-awareness when laying bare his strained connection, or absence thereof, with his mother place him in this tradition. Thus In “My mother, Unconscious” he writes: “my wilful abandonment a coma/ not all sons yield to, our parents long dead/ to us before they die, love underfed/ No solace offered eyes turned from trauma’s/ Kill site.” Not of course that honesty and sincerity in themselves guarantee good poetry, but Barton, with eleven previous volumes to his credit, is well aware of how to set up such statements.

However, the choice of the sonnet as his basic narrative unit is not an obvious one. Leaving aside the constraints of metre and set rhyme schemes, as indeed Barton for the most part does, the tight, self-contained form of the traditional sonnet suggests like a mathematical equation that completeness, a summing up and resolving of human experience, can still be achieved. Which is why, with the exception of a few subversive examples such as Wilfred Owen’s “What passing bells for those who die as cattle?” or e.e.cummings’ “next to of course god,” traditional sonnets did not survive the First World War.

How then does Barton navigate this? Although there is a roughly chronological sequence to the poems, many are also grouped thematically, and it would be difficult and probably counter-productive to read straight through the book as one might with a prose memoir or autobiography. For that the poetry is too dense. Purely in terms of sound patterning it enforces slow and attentive reading. Consider, for instance, these lines from “Arrival and Departure:”

As I stepped off the ferry alone, bare
Headed, sunburned nose stung by kelp, and looked

Felt awkward till you stood out from the crowd
Waiting for foot traffic to clear Customs
Calm, sisterly, and pleased I’d crossed, the sum

Of the sea’s pull, collapsed, crash of surf loud
In my ears when years later I’m adrift
By your bed as two nurses unhook you
Your body a raft too wrecked to hold you

bare- sunburned, stepped stung; kelp looked awkward; clear Customs calm crossed : this is only the beginning, but it is typical of the texture of most of these poems, which are further complicated, and for the most part enriched, by Barton’s skill, rare nowadays whether in verse or prose, in composing in long, complex sentences that involve subordinate clauses and phrases in apposition, and all with a minimum of punctuation. Sometimes indeed, as in “Keepsake,” the poem comprises one continuous sentence, with many unsuspected line breaks. Readers accustomed to the instant verbal gratification of Twitter might well find the effort unnerving. But such clotted, muscular constructions that recall at times the sonnets of Donne and Hopkins, are part and parcel of Barton’s attempt to convey not just the physical facts but also the twists and turns of mood and sensation, all the mixed feelings that the balanced orderliness of most traditional sonneteers would not even attempt.

Those mixed feelings cover a lot of ground and involve his relations with his parents and siblings, his life as a gay man, his response to public acts of terrorism along with childhood memories such as this, addressed to his mother:

Could you still see the son you’d trucked to Girl
Guide camp, a boy so small I was a doll
Your feral conscripts would have loved to dress

Badges racked up for Loco Parentis
Spotters foiling my pratfalls into wells
At Sandy Lake, Mockingbird or Tangle
Trees, where as mascot I gorged on saskatoons
Too juiced on mauve to claim a gender yet

and he is admirably quick to question his own motives, as here in “Photo Finish,” the concluding sequence about photography and death:

                             my doubtful Instamatic
Aimed away from myself, the rolls of film
Unbiased, their conscience automatic,
Suggestible, a slippery medium
To rewind and develop negatives
Slid into Glassine sleeves before the prints
Go astray, the mind’s offhand eye furtive
To what I looked for
.

Difficult as such lines frequently are to read aloud, they have a kind of succinctness and economy not normally available in prose.

What I find less satisfactory is the presence, at least five times, of “crowns” of sonnets; that is, seven sonnets linked by having the last line of one sonnet become the first line of the following sonnet. Whereas internal rhymes and assonances come naturally to a good poet, a crown cannot help but be a highly calculated device. Introducing this degree of artifice, of conspicuous display, feels at odds with the work’s prevailing directness.

But this is more than outweighed by the poet’s skill in reviving the original power of dead metaphors. Just as in “Arrival and Departure,” quoted above, we gradually become aware of the ferry as metaphor (Charon and the river Styx), so too when considering his family inheritance the routine idea of a family tree is expanded and so given new substance:

It drove us to scatter, runaway shards
Skidding past us over drops to jumbled

Slag of a once-sequential, deluge-scarred
Geologic record, our family
Tree, anchoring between laid-bare, ill-starred

Unstable layers, invasive species, keyed
To spread wide its branches, the lofty crown
Out of balance with the root ball…

John Barton, from his website

Another relatively minor quibble: although the book ends with four pages of acknowledgments and sources, there are no notes as such. Thus, since I recognized the reference to J.R. Ackerley, long time editor of BBC radio’s magazine The Listener, and so understood his relevance for Barton as a gay man, especially in a sequence of poems about gay men such as James Baldwin or Rock Hudson who served as exemplars — but is this common knowledge, if that term even any longer means anything? Again, though I could deduce something from the context, I had to look up Everett (George) Klippert and though I knew the name Dusty Springfield I was unaware of her back history. How often should we have to consult Dr Google?

Such assumptions on Barton’s part of shared knowledge do point up a more general structural problem: Whereas a prose memoir could add details either in the passage itself or as footnotes, this would seem awkward and disruptive in a poem sequence unless that information were conveyed separately in prose in the body of the text, something that would be virtually impossible in an already stretched sonnet form. On the other hand, if part of a memoir’s role is to leave the reader asking for more, then these poems succeed, for they provide tantalizing snapshots in passing rather than a survey of a settled landscape.

The final consideration concerns the long poem as such. Is it even possible to write a long poem today? Not if we think of it in terms of Wordsworth’s Prelude, Browning’s The Ring and the Book or, more recently, John Betjeman’s autobiographical Summoned by Bells, all in blank verse. But unless it is done superlatively well, blank verse is as much a non-starter nowadays as, say, the standard 18th century heroic couplet. Of course there are exceptions such as Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, which is a tour de force: at 307 pages of fourteen-line rhyming stanzas it describes itself as a novel in verse and is indeed very readable, but more as a novel than as verse.

Because there no longer exists an audience for extended verse narrative and because there is no one metre in which it could be written, the contemporary long poems we tend to value most, such as Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid, are hybrids, taking their cue from William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. Personally I would have welcomed such a hybrid in this instance with short prose connective tissue. Ultimately, then, I feel that as a verse memoir it is a brilliant failure. On the other hand, it excels as a collection of poems drawn from and exploring the whole range of the poet’s inner and outer life and the public events and movements he has witnessed or taken part in. It is fascinating, well-wrought, often moving and very readable — provided you give it the slow, careful reading it deserves.

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Christopher Levenson

Born in London, England, in 1934, Christopher Levenson came to Canada 1968 and taught English, Creative Writing, and Comparative Literature at Carleton University from 1968 to 1999. He has also lived and worked in the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, and India. He has written twelve books of poetry, the most recent of which is A Tattered Coat Upon a Stick (Quattro Books, 2017). He co-founded Arc magazine in 1978, was its editor for the first ten years, and was for five years Series Editor of the Harbinger imprint of Carleton University Press, which published exclusively first books of poetry. He has reviewed widely, mostly poetry and South Asian literature in English, in the UK and Canada. With his wife, Oonagh Berry, Christopher moved to Vancouver in 2007 where he helped re-start and run the Dead Poets Reading Series. Editor’s note: Christopher Levenson has recently reviewed books by John Pass, Rob TaylorKevin SpenstDerk WynandDaniela ElzaSarah de LeeuwSusan BuisMiranda Pearson, and Nicholas Bradley.

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