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John Barton poet selected poems
John Barton, For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin
Gibsons, BC: Nightwood Editions, 2012.

With nine previous trade collections and a number of significant awards in his rear-view, John Barton is well within selected-poems territory. But as perhaps the first career retrospective by a Canadian openly gay male poet, For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin also charts the broad strokes of a 30-year sea change. In a recent discussion of emerging queer writer Ben Ladouceur, Barton notes that in his own time the experience of being a queer male has come to no longer entail “an a-priori despair over same-sex identity” (Arc 73). One reading of Barton’s career suggested by this selection of poems is as a project of undermining and deconstructing such despair.

There’s a sense in the earliest poems here of a voice coming to self-knowledge in a vacuum—the initial instinct, to fill that great unspoken with volume, scope, wilfulness-as-prophecy:

I’ve let you in,
filled empty marble halls,
arching silences that have lasted generations.
My doctors will be shocked.
Hitler will be shocked.
They never knew I would give birth
to a new age.

The early long poem “Hidden Structure” cycles metaphors (the sea, the sun, the infinities between atoms) in search of one large enough to assert its own existence. While the poem lacks the worldliness and emotional nuance of Barton’s mature voice, in its questing, its meandering, its piling of aphorisms, “Hidden Structure” performs a necessary work of setting terms: “We have destroyed in living // alone the meaning of love.” ?“Those who love shall love / no matter how the bodies join.” This movement over 18 unguarded pages through anguish into love and (self-)acceptance forms a basis for both a personal poetics and for survival.

There is an echo of that project in the coming-of-age poems from 1994’s Designs from the Interior. These graceful lyrics have a prelapsarian quality, nascent sexuality honeyed by nostalgia. Here sin is not in the hand that “embraces mystery, the hungry / language of involuntary // nerve endings” but in the cult of shame that makes simple words of love dangerous. In this queering of familiar adolescent tropes like playing doctor, he produces the most conventionally beautiful poetry of his career. It’s an attempt at deploying the Keatsian beauty-truth connection as a mathematical proof: the existence of beautiful gay love poems proves the objective beauty of gay love itself.

The later poems cease to presume a “universalist” audience. Theirs is a subjectivity that does not hedge its expression in hopes of heteronormative sanction. At the same time the writing itself becomes simultaneously denser and more conceptually expansive. Simile is replaced almost entirely by metaphor, concerned with wholeness rather than comparison. Ideas emerge in long chains that almost defy short excerpts,

…collapsing
inward as memory spirals down a vortex
of expanding

particulars, which with every tighter downward turn more
minutely blur

Compared with early work like “Hidden Structure,” the Barton of gems like “Saranac Lake Variation” and “Days of 2004, Days of Cavafy” is less defined by his aloneness, as though in the connections forged by 30 years of writing to predecessors like Frank O’Hara and C.P. Cavafy, and to generations ongoing, it has become a bit easier to simply be a poet, and a man.

JM Francheteau is a rural transplant based in Ottawa. Recent poems have appeared in CV2, ottawater and the chapbook A pack of lies (Dog Bites Cameron, 2013.) He co-organizes the Ottawa Zine Off! series and blogs at jmfrancheteau.wordpress.com.

This review originally appeared in print in Arc 74.

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