A review of John Barton, HYMN (London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2009)
I have always been interested in the fact that the very people who issue gay works of art, having done so, then hold back from properly marketing them as such. This commercial ploy, or lack of one, is most conspicuous, I think, in the rear-cover blurbs of DVDs, which very rarely mention the gayness of films’ themes, plots or characters. It is as if, having funded the production of the gay work, publishing houses and production and distribution companies then want to recoup their losses by conning a wider audience into believing what they are about to buy is as wholesomely straight as Sarah Palin.
I have observed the same tendency even in the blurbs of poetry collections, which, these days, are hardly likely to turn the heads of a mass market, no matter what is written on the back, or even the front, of the books. In the case of the present collection by the distinguished Canadian poet John Barton, the publisher’s website speaks of it as a ‘journey in search of love through the contemporary homoerotic male body’, adding that ‘Hymn stokes the fires of homoerotic romantic love with its polar extremes of intimacy and solitude’. Now, ‘homoerotic’ is, surely, not such a very controversial word, but it does not appear on the book itself—not even a book that, like this, has a picture of two, or perhaps three, men (almost) embracing on its front cover.
The pithiest thing about the book is the pun in its title, suggesting a hymn to him (whom?). The word also always brings ‘hymen’ to my mind—but perhaps, in this case, that is one distraction too far. In an interview on his publisher’s website, Barton says, ‘Hymn puts words to the music of disappointment and aspiration that gay men often feel in the pursuit of—and during the detours they take, consciously and unconsciously, on the way to and away from—love.’ This parenthesis, this detour on detours, is typical of Barton’s work at its best and worst—the individual reader can make this qualitative choice. There are times when it is the length and convolution of his sentences that absorbs one’s attention, rather than the argument itself.
Of course, when I suggest of a poet that he uses too many words, I feel like Joseph II: ‘Too many notes, my dear Mozart!’ And Barton is indeed prolix—but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The Canadians, too, have learned from the greatest bard of their southern neighbours, Walt Whitman, how to encompass an enormous land mass in verse that is both expansive and yet also, somehow, to the point. But the main technical dialectic with which Barton engages is Ezra Pound's. There is some purpose for any modern, Anglophone poet in countering the rules of Imagism as laid down before the First World War by Pound, or at least in straying from them when the mood strikes. There is no absolute reason why poetry should state things more briefly than prose would. Why should it not luxuriate in the flow of language for its own sake? Barton clearly knows that, as well as the Chinese and Japanese miniaturists, Pound also admired the profuse verbosity of Chaucer and Browning.
In a poem addressed to ‘Drella’ (Andy Warhol), Barton refers to his characteristic grammatical unit as ‘this kleptomaniac run-on sentence’, suggesting that the point of the thing, like that of Whitman’s lists, is accumulation rather than the ravelling of a complex argument. I am all for complex sentences—there are not enough of them in modern poetry. (A plague of parataxis in Britain has left most of our lyric poets incapable of stringing together a two-clause sentence without fucking up its grammar.) But I do not consistently feel the same confidence in Barton’s control of syntax, when he is digressing, that I do feel when going along with the grammatical arabesques of Marcel Proust or Henry James, when circumlocution and prolixity seem so tightly harnessed to the complexity of the thing being said and the meticulousness of the thought process. Those two great masters of digression never ramble. They never lose their concentration; and as a result, when reading them, neither do I.
Contrary to the publisher’s website, it is really only in the fourth of the book’s five sections that Barton explicitly dwells on many aspects of contemporary gay life and the ancient variants it seems to echo. His long poem ‘Days of 2004, Days of Cavafy’, about and addressed to Constantine Cavafy, speaks of the great Greek poet’s relationship with the classical world as a kind of mutual or reciprocal invagination: ‘the whole of an ancient world inside you / and you inside it’. Here, for the second time in the book, the lines are so long that the poem is printed at ninety degrees to the convention, so that one has to hold the book sideways, one page above the other. This cleverly discomfiting ploy subverts one's confidence and makes the very act of reading seem strange--'queer', if you must. Usually, one only holds a book this way up to look at certain kinds of illustration.
The poem is broad in its sweep as well as its line. Violating one of the sacred principles of Foucaultian queer theory, it claims connections between the sexual lives of men in different places and different times: ‘men who travel lives not too indifferent / to our own, travelling from Sparta to Thermopylae, from Sussex Drive to Albion Road’—the latter being streets in Ottawa. At first, ‘indifferent’ looks like a malapropism for ‘similar’; but one soon understands that each generation of man-loving men takes an interest in others both past and future, with an associative desire that is wishful and wistful, all the more powerful for the distances it manages to span.
By the end of the poem, it is clear that Barton is looking back to ancient Greeks, not merely from Cavafy’s modernity, nor even from his own post-modernity, but from some imagined future point, from which even our most cherished technological and verbal innovations (an earlier poem has invoked Cavafy in the abbreviations of text-speak) will seem primitive. When he addresses ‘men of the future looking backwards’ he inevitably echoes our position in relation to Cavafy, or Cavafy’s to Plato, and takes bodily possession of the words such men once addressed, and continue addressing, to posterity.
Barton’s versions of gayness are full of paradoxes, not merely mimicking (as so much modern camp does badly) the wit of Oscar Wilde, but purposely convulsing our chronologies and complacencies by questioning what we take for granted as their logic. The poem ‘Fucking the Minotaur’ threads its way through the labyrinth of a gay bathhouse and the less convoluted maze of the metro journey home, interestingly concluding that the latter is by far the more erotic space. In another poem, Barton’s take on ‘Amnesia’, that condition so perfectly confuted in its own etymology, has gay men going about their business among the heritage sites of modern Athens, not only making (in Browning’s evocative phrase) ‘love among the ruins’ but reviving what entropy had once undone. It is as if the poet were to counter the pessimism of Eliot’s claim, ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’, not much less than a century later, with his own, these ruins I have shored against my fragments.