Gary Barwin. The Porcupinity of the Stars.
Gary Barwin. The Porcupinity of the Stars. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2010.
There are lots of poems written for and about children because poets have children, and as a consequence the children are condemned to be written about and for. But the preponderance of poems written by Canadians in this vein are narratives and lyrics, straightforward pieces about love and wonder and milestones. Some of this output is even beautiful. There isn't very much poetry in this country espousing the surreal method. In The Porcupinity of the Stars, a book dedicated to his family, Gary Barwin has written poems that refresh the approach to poetry about children. Instead of conventional scenes of domesticity, of the at-a-remove poet reflecting on children taking first steps or setting off for the first day of school, Barwin's children are depicted mid-play, and the writing itself is playful in its images and construction. Barwin refuses to tell a story or anecdote straight, preferring to depict play as a process. And this is perhaps the greatest trick of all for the poet writing about children: not just to impart the child's identity or the components of his/her world, but to convey the magic of childhood itself. The piece de resistance of the book has to be "Fourth Person," in which Barwin evokes the creative process of his daughter, Rudi, as she draws pictures of other people. It is hard to read such a poem and not be transformed by the fidelity to the child's imagination, to read its syntactic stutterings and mid-stream recasts and not believe, and believe utterly that this is more than a poem, that it is a distillation or an essence. It is hard to be known completely by another, but a poem like this is perhaps the greatest testament to fatherhood I have yet read-with none of the usual slogging through fear and anxiety that parents inevitably face, and which poets make much of. The book does contain some traditional parental concerns: Barwin includes human stepping stones to make the surreal fiver they rise from more poignant. In "Fourteen Beautiful Dogs" Barwin writes: "the horizon grows ever larger / please save my family from complication or sudden death // listen: a small movement in the linden leaves / be brave be brave be brave," just so we understand that the poet isn't only there to play. He's not a buffoon, knows what's at stake with these young lives. Another poem, "Grief," is an apprehension of the many things that can go wrong. Elsewhere in The Porcupinity of the Stars, the poem "Horse," for example, Barwin divines what makes children different from adults, and celebrates that difference. Barwin's formidable creative energy is perfectly matched here to his material. There are many other themes and subjects to be found in this book, including some quite complex considerations of the nature of language and how our language broadcasts how we think. But (I say this as one who has written perhaps too many fretful poems about inheritance and provenance) it's the simple human regard Barwin has for his brood, and the genius in making that regard come alive, that instills wonder.