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Dempster’s Blue Wherever

Barry Dempster at Plan 99 Barry Dempster read at Plan 99 in Ottawa June 12th from each of his 3 latest collections, Blue Wherever (Signature Editions, 2010), Ivan’s Birches (Pedlar Press 2009) and Love Outlandish (Brick Books, 2009).

I meant to get back to mention more of this reading earlier. His reading was a lovely mix of tones. Some patter but not undirected filler, rather brief set ups for the mood of the next poem when changing gears. Some comic, some achy, some nostalgia tempered by hindsight. There are poems that drop sweet phrases like one about feeling utterly fulfilled and sated by an art gallery and asking himself, “is desire sustenance?”

Poems of his Every Person don’t come across as some noble lowest common denominator of grit but something more innocent, such as being in love with singer after singer and the accumulation and the nimbly sketched scene brings its own tragi-comic sort of framing — teenager’s little room dreaming big. And then the delivery of pause of half a beat, then, “or was it Linda Ronstadt I might have married?”

There’s a sense of humility in the humour. It’s a hard balance, not raw, not proud of mistakes or sounding bitter and sarcastic, but compassionate with an astute observation that nails a moment, gently.

In his Blue Whatever there’s a poem on p. 55 called “If I Can Dance”. It exemplifies that, and the brave position of admitting ones own foolishness. Here’s the start,

Muscle-strained thighs ache
to shake loose, reconnect to hips.

Dance diagnostic: my body a blueprint
of sway and groove, a little orchestra

jamming my chest, slamming/swishing,
blood swirling in an upside-down tambourine.

To hell with child post or eagle flying,
this new oomph is a goose with clothespins

on its wings, a major wriggle

What lovely, lively images behind the image of dance-floor disaster, yet while I cringe at the picture of this improv chicken dance, I’m rooting for him. Some may armchair referee from their safe positions, but they lose out on the fun of learning and he’s going for it. He has the nerve to try to dance and keep going until he does figure out the footwork. The joy of the scene comes out in the sound.

The three books have some lovely turns of phrases and sounds that give multiple readings extra boost of depth to get more from. It’s a pity I was running late after my dawdling talking to person after person, and rushed off before a chance to say how I enjoyed the reading. I also appreciated how he looked entirely present with whoever talked with him afterwards. He gave his undivided attention. It’s a fairly rare skill and/or personality.

I like how he’s telling stories that I don’t know. I can’t say at any point, I’ve heard this before. Such as the story of a horse whose face had reconstructive surgery. I don’t know anything from direct experience of that, although I lived with horses for 20 years. It starts (p.23),

The barn is ripe with geldings and mares;
how well they get along without
the bother of balls and fidelity.
The one stallion snorts by the far door,
as if disgusted with the easy
equanimity, knocked the gate
with his hammer hooves, letting everyone
know they’re unsafe. A sheen of nervousness
in the air, flecks of hay drifting
in the sliced sunbeams like tiny flares.
Except for Sprout, across the way,
one of the castrati, whose head-bends
beg a bold friendliness. From the left,
he’s suede and apple butter, a profile
fit for a coin.

From the first phrase, we have the sharp sensory ripe. And a pivot. We expect, perhaps manure and there is but already, expanding to more…the gendered smells, the mare urine distinct. You get the sense of sexual hormonal air. And then another pivot, if you did or didn’t know what gelding is, you do now, or in a few lines when we get to castrati. The room gave titters at “bother of balls and fidelity”. It’s fitting the context and yet not expected.

The stallion is disgusted by the “easy” and the line break completes meaning enough, but the sentence expands further as if the stallion needed a moment longer to think past his testosterone for the word. In the poem in the air is a pleasure of sounds. On the page the line breaks give such extra interesting weights, another “easter egg” for the visual. Read line by line it is not just the stallion but equanimity knocking the gate to come in as the animal kicks back.

There’s the turn from the expected phrase “let everyone know they’re safe”. A line ends, dangling on the word drifting. The sunbeam in the dusty barn is given a fresh view. It adds to the richness of context. Then we turn to the main character and in contrast to the nameless snorting stallion, he has a cutie-patooie name, “Sprout” and even the rhythm shifts around the introduction to him and it prances with less critical content words. His harmlessness is even stated freshly with “head-bends”. He looks like a cat wanting a scratch behind the ears. You have the set up of his character and beauty and then another pivot. But I’ll lead you to read the other 2/3rd of the piece.

During his reading, his intro to this poem, entitled Blindness, gave another layer. It doesn’t matter to me if the story is true or composite or fabricated but to hear about the anecdote of context makes it extra interesting. Apparently he does Poet Walks with students, like a ginko walk, where they focus and observe what’s sensory around them.

One time they went to a stable and met this horse that became the source of the poem. After having had urged his students to explore the world, taste dirt, sniff this, sniff that, he didn’t have much margin to shy away from the horse he was shy of. It’s just a nice thing to know on top of the poem.

The book’s not all patted pretty nor gratuitously nasty. It has some humour, some pathos. It is carefully built. There are nuggets to reward thru the length. A lot of it demands to be read aloud because it’s fun to the tongue. One last excerpt I’ll show you is from page 35-36, “Temporary, A Lament”, in which the Graceful Letting Go of the Transitory has transitioned to Fed Up.

Be bold, be possessive, tie Buddha into
knots, say no, you’re meant to be mine. Of course,
this will achieve nothing but misery,
but your misery nonetheless

Heh, that’s fun. Been there.

I’ve yet to read the whole book. Sometimes I say a collection is worth it if there’s just one poem I must own. But this has a few and the reward I get is enough to merit re-reading so getting thru the whole could take some time. The poems feel like a nice place to be with a personable sort of company.

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