Wednesday, May 14, 2008

This Land is our Land
John Barton

How I love to hold it while you pee, without any need

to taste, though some drink their own, one or two meagre
palmfuls until the end, at a loss in the badlands—it has to

go somewhere, you say, the excess nutrients shed, the musk
of asparagus steamed at night, the salty butter-melt running

down our chests, the excess handy for later, you never know
what we may run out of long after the Hasty Market has closed

bodies of water, bodies of steam re-engineering the industrial
revolution from opposing sides, east and west opening up

the wilderness, one dark tunnel after the other blasted through
the mountains we love, the hallucination of a river rearing below

our berthing us, bucking us, for whistles stops miles past
the last spike and Roger's Pass, the body a round-trip ticket

from Vancouver Island to the Alberta highlands, the prairies
the lakes, to Ontario's tower, the excess expelled afterwards

but not the anger or the desire to be full—pour me another glass
of water, cowboy, we've got lots of time; you're holding mine

now and the mirrors we never forget about run slick with steam.

(John Barton, from Peter F Yacht Club #7)

Sometimes a poem's omissions are glaringly obvious. More often though, the poet has carefully excised the unnecessary bits and bobs from his poem—their ingenuity remains completely hidden. The process of editing can be a bit like a surgery, and when the surgery is permanently disfiguring, it is either a sign the patient was in very dire need or a sign of a surgeon of limited capabilities. Here's a good example of where the handiwork remains largely hidden.

This is a poem of implication. Look at the deft use of the pronoun 'it' in line 1. You have to pass 'it' to see what 'it' refers to, and then you must read the subject back into the line, reflexively. Is it the speaker's lover's penis? Or do you just have a dirty mind? The second-to-last line deletes penis again—the word “mine” stands in for it. Sounds kind of old fashioned, doesn't it? Or is it coy, flirty? Barton leaves out three nouns in the first two lines alone. “How I love to hold [your penis] while you pee, without any need / to taste [your pee], though some drink their own [urine], one or two meagre...” and the whole poem is dotted with these excisions.

In a class I took in the University of Ottawa's translation department, the teacher told the class, "It's a sentence fragment if you do it by accident. If you do it on purpose, it's elliptical." Sage advice for poets.

Like “Shiver,” “This Land is Our Land” is one sentence long. Here Barton sets off his main clause with an intricate parenthetical aside caught between the em dashes. It's a reverie, a daydream of water, space and nationhood. (There's one small hiccup to this interpretation, at least to my ear. I hear a break after line 7, between “closed” and “bodies.” But “closed” could technically take “bodies of water” as its direct object, meaning that the convenience store closed the “bodies of water” -- a double meaning, incidentally, meaning either a lake or a person.)

And did you notice Barton uses the term "excess" three times? It's subtle and I think a bit tongue-in-cheek, given the repeated word's meaning.
"Excess nutrients... Excess handy for later.... Excess expelled afterwards / but not the anger or the desire to be full." Somewhere deep down, I hope he's referencing Spa Xcess, a Toronto bathhouse, but somehow I doubt it.

Back to mechanics. Throughout, he trades periods for commas, making the sentence bend, wriggle, and snake through 18 lines.Now, look at the way he hangs prepositions over the line breaks—four in a row toward the middle of the poem with “up, through, below, past.” He's built this poem for speed—the elliptical phrasing, dropping periods for commas, running over the line breaks—all in perfect mimic of the action of the poem. The layering is doubly and triply a “hallucination.”

John Barton is certianly one of our expert excisers. His CV looks a bit like this: he's the author of eight books of poetry, including Sweet Ellipsis (ECW, 1998), Hypothesis (Anansi, 2001) and Asymmetries (Frog Hollow, 2004). A former Ottawan now living in Victoria, BC, Barton is the editor of the Malahat Review. With (Xtra columnist) Billeh Nickerson, Barton put together the first historical collection of gay male Canadian poets, called Seminal.

Catch Barton at the Dusty Owl Reading Series. Sunday, May 18 at 2pm. Swizzles. Free (Donations accepted via hat-passing.)