In his CV2/Winnipeg Review take on John Wall Barger’s The Book of Festus, Michael Prior correctly identifies the book’s “magpie eye” toward epic form. Barger’s debt to the 20th century writers Prior mentions—Olsen, Berryman and Joyce—is not in doubt, although given the city-as-man trope in Festus, Williams’ Paterson should be added to that list. These epics, along with the 19th-century Festus by John Philip Bailey and the history of the city of Halifax, are the memories upon which The Book of Festus draws to produce its colourful, light-hearted, and strange dream.
Barger makes a point, however, to indicate that these memories are in an ephemeral and linguistic form. “Across a dream of words,” he writes in the opening poem, “Invocation,” Festus “walks, gathering words / —so fragile, hard to hold / each like a rolling paper / on fire.” Festus has a physical relationship with words: walking on “the word sidewalk,” smelling “the word Seaweed,” and “having misplaced / a dear word: bicycle.” This purposeful conflation of signified and signifier is a major hint to the reader. The other major theme of “Invocation” is forgetting. The poem begins, “Festus, having forgot,” and later in the poem we learn that Festus “forgot all he had forgot.” Finally, at the poem’s end our hero gets the sense that “something is remembering me.”
The tensions between word and signified and forgetting and remembering run in parallel and both contribute to the text being steeped in an uncertain, but ultimately solid, relationship to truth. The speaker’s awareness of that uncertainty is a boon to the text in that it allows the poems to rather gleefully play in the grey area of the reader’s partial understanding. Here’s what we know: Festus has lost his bike, he wants it back, and he eventually gets it back. But while the lost bicycle—or the lost word bicycle—is the ostensible object of Festus’ quest, the episodes he encounters along the way are the core of the book.
In pursuit of his bike, Festus time-travels through the history of Halifax, visits the mall, contemplates a buried river and watches himself on TV, among other assorted adventures. He encounters a crew of vaguely-sketched characters—Eric the Red Cat, the Bone Ghost, the citizens of Halifax acting as a chorus—but only Festus’ love interest, Sally, seems more than vaguely real. In “Open Curtains,” the estranged lovers watch a movie recounting their relationship, with the audience taking the role of chorus. This is the most engrossing part of Festus, one of the few moments when the book breaks through its obscurity to reach some kind of emotional impact. In the following poem, “Sally Gone,” our hero’s “wound / on his hand leaks / droplets of orange sugar / on the sidewalk.” At this point, you realize the book isn’t about the bike, or it shouldn’t be. It’s about Sally.
But despite some compelling moments, Festus leaves you reaching. You get enough sense from it that you appreciate the play, the historical commentary, the humour (thank god for the humour), and even a bit of Festus’ sadness. But reading the book one more time through, I find I’m sick of reaching, of never being able to inhabit the book fully. I want something to bite into. I want the book to welcome me into its strange world. The Book of Festus resists that.
E Martin Nolan writes poetry and essays. He’s an associate editor at The Puritan Magazine. He teaches Engineering Communication at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.
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