Dying A Little (2011) is Barry Dempster’s fourth volume of poetry in three years, at least two of the collections, including this latest effort, lengthy. There are three reasons -- among others, I’m sure – poets turn the compositional/publishing spigot to full-on 83 bar firehose. They’re assaulted, usually at the height of great career powers, by images and integrated visions, the poets serving as faithful conduit, rarely editing anything in the process. Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus is one example. They’re cynically gaming the academic publish-or-perish system to stay “relevant”. Or they’re doing what most poets do, writing a lot of verse, the difference being that their internal editor and assessor is asleep or is ignored because of grandiosity or immodesty. Reason number one doesn’t apply to Dempster. And I believe in the sincerity of his attempts, which leaves that last option as my best guess. But whatever the genesis for the poetic logorrhea, the result in the reader is often one of irritation and impatience. The impatience is increased in that Dempster, in Dying a Little, is going over much of the same material – mortality – he’s been concerned with in his more recent works. This is even more disturbing in that Dempster is just 60 years of age. The reader can be fairly safe in assuming an even greater intensification of his singular obsession in the next (5? 12?) books.
It didn’t have to be that way. Dempster is an interesting man with a lot of interesting things to intuit and submit about sexual entropy and the approaching pit. The trouble, once again, is that, despite various scenarios, anecdotes, and fantasies, the tape is stuck in a recurring loop.
Dying A Little owes its impetus from the author’s friend, Cathy Stanley, who died at 50 from breast cancer. Dempster uses this as a launching pad for similar meditations on mortality – his, his father’s, friends, the general ruck of humankind. His recent Blue Wherever similarly uses his father’s death to include others, but in both books Dempster spends as much or more time on lamenting nature’s plan as it plays out in him than on anyone else. When at his best, Dempster leavens the mortal forboding with deliciously dark humour, as in “Headline: Dying Without A Will Can Be Devastating”, where “[h]e thinks of leaving his fingers/to the secretarial pool, his eyes/to the back of someone’s previously/unimportant head.” The final four lines, not recorded here, increase the surprise with more humour, but this time wedded to a painfully bleak and universal human predilection. Stunning stuff, and I could read this kind of confessional bite for hours. But – again, blame in on entropy, if you want – we only have so many bullets in our chambers. After a terrific opening in which six of the first seven poems are various and exciting, realized and dramatically gripping, the poems tend to blend one with another into a kind of self-pitying soup. The indignities of aging, the meaninglessness of going on, unbreachable sexual and emotional understanding between those in a relationship, the rush to get on with our lives while ignoring those around us: all of these concerns are universal, certainly, and rendered in honest and sometimes imaginative ways, but repetition in theme and mood takes over, and the crafted delights turn labourious, even strained. In “Bonfire”, “[t]he neighbours are burning again tonight,”, an unfortunate syntactic choice (“heaps of what used to be a tree” in the next line doesn’t erase the unintentional laugh). Later in the same poem, “[n]ight sweating,/cinders trickling down columns of //darkness” is an overblown reaction to a (usually) festive communal activity. If Dempster would get out of his own head and emotions occasionally, and use his formidable intelligence to fashion an emotional line incorporating others’ perspectives, the bulk of his efforts wouldn’t pile up in “nothing/but a ring of blackened stones”, but in a fascinating mix of oppositional ideas, or even complementary though off-key comparisons.
Dempster is becoming another John B. Lee of Canadian poetry: a talented maker of poems who might leave behind (in optimistic irony to his poetic persona) a lasting impact but for the heaps of wet branches tossed every few minutes onto a furious base fire. It’s more frustrating because, unlike Lee, Dempster actually has the severity and restraint to sustain his best poems from the first to last word.