Completing John Barton's Hypothesis, one's mouth is left agape at the sheer ambition of the writer in this, his eighth book of poetry. Natural terrain becomes metaphor for physical terrain; exploration and the road trip become allegory for sexuality, every roadway and winding North American canyon reminiscent of engorged capillaries, firing synapses, and confused twisting emotions. A good thing Barton's map is expansive, so to speak, for the breadth of both his politics and poetics is wide and ranging. The essayistic "Trudeau's Children" and other poems discussing Quebecois history and destiny mingle with the Green ("Luna", inspired by Californian EARTH FIRST! tree-sitter Julia Butterfly), the Progressive ("forget whatever borders / we did not choose"), the Sexually Revolutionary ("love finally / expressed as a desire for separation and true / abandon inside some vast snowed-in country"), and the Sexually Topical ("Body Bag", a dirge for the AIDS era in which it is implied the eponymous object, like a condom, is "one-size-fits-all"). Stylistically, meandering epics written in couplets nestle easily with lyrics sporting Charles Wright-style low riders, double-spaced pages of broken prose lines, journal-culled confessionalism and sunny travelogue.
Compelling, this brew, to be sure. However, the latter prophylactic-to-body bag yoking raises a red flag¨and some interesting questions about the importance of invention. Barton's line itself is a carbon copy of Franz Wright's 1999 poem of the same name, which reads in its entirety: "Like the condom in a pinch one size fits all." Since all poets are thieves, whether they know it or not, we can't excoriate Barton¨or can we? Shouldn't we, after all, expect a level of ingenuity far above his peers from one of Canada's all-stars? Therein Hypothesis, the troublesome: though the timbre of the whole book is satisfying for its sprawl and commendable for its scope, this kind of lack of innovation on a poem-by-poem basis is damning. Indeed, there are hints of reappropriation (at best), or bored regurgitation (at worst) throughout these 118 pages. Traversing homosexual themes, Barton walks mostly in lockstep with his forerunners and contemporaries; not even the mock jealousy of "the future / dispossessed of any unwelcome / monogrammed cufflinks," nor his equation of "waiting Ó [for] results" with "doldrums," feels unobligatory or untraveled.
Barton's imagery and treatment of this subject matter have been on the poetic "gaydar" for years, as any cursory look at past and recent compilations (e.g., 1997's The Male Muse: A Gay Anthology by fellow Canadian Ian Young, or Timothy Liu's Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, released in 2000 by Talisman House) will show. Much of the work in these collections is more electric, erotic and daring than Barton's latest; and, though Barton's work while overly safe isn't necessarily clichTd or pedestrian¨the inherent seriousness and starkness of HIV and homophobia might preclude any poet's work from being tagged as such¨one is left wanting. For every intricate and wrenching "Plasma, Triangles of Silk"¨where the lethal virus is explicated as a "slowly apparent design Ó / positioned in arcane patterns to catch the eye through variation / and distract it"¨one redoubles at what feels like dozens of instances of fuzzy banality like "sightless flash of orgasm's / flare, where afterward you found space for/ a kind of asylum in the depths of my arms / harbouring there" ("Eye Country"). Why can't the orgasm translate into something gruffer, more visceral in its impact, more meaningful when used as a metaphor for all that one releases in life¨as in John Weiners's "After the Orgasm", to name but one poem, in which "Now listening to torch songs, / we dream of those revered days, / as if we haven't enough of it now // when our flesh shall be old, / and the young bodies shall mean the universe for us, / only to find it's some worthless punk who ends up in your arms?" One reviewer recently commented on the "musky man-sex" and exploratory spirit emanating from Hypothesis; though there are whiffs of each in the book, there's nowhere near the level of soppiness, kinkiness or defiance one longs for or sees in the work of Barton's forebears, the late Weiners especially. Science and hypothesizing, yes¨as Barton said in a Danforth Review interview, "I consider a poem to be a kind of experiment where a number of elements or forces are brought together under test conditions Ó to see how they will interact to create meaning or relevance"¨but raw and original and transcendent cannon-blasts of passion, frustration, sufferingÓ?
Barton's musing on themes that are neither homo- nor hetero- specific is similarly bereft. With the same 'nth time' flatness as in "Eye Country", we awaken next to lovers who've shattered a wineglass in ecstasy and who "slept / beneath scalding / sheets" ("Hybrid"), and taste the diluted, wannabe succulence of "Watershed" ("the very pith of you / sunburned, hay-stubbled, cicada-lyred, unfenced-in"). The eroticism of love, sex and yearning that so many greats have re-defined¨the unforgettable, veiled yet rigid delicacy of Transtromer's "I resembled the compass needle the orienteer runner / carries as he runs with heart pounding"¨becomes as bland and one-dimensional as the empty abstractions, "love," "sex" and "yearning." Not even the dawn "burned / to containable ash" by the end of "Hybrid," a remarkable take on the weary, misgiven post-passion felt in the light of the Morning After, can elevate us¨we've become stultified by yet another round of the pat, the expected.
Given the current topography of gay poetry, perhaps the ur-homoerotic, the utterly original, is now impossible¨what with music-rich, socially-aware and personality-bold poets writing like Mark Bibbins ("Bring on the horse tranquilizers / for my listing heart is pecker-fretted, truculent and true"), Justin Chin ("At 10, it tastes like spit / at 20: melted government margarine / at 30: Elmer's glue paste / at 40: vaseline") and D.A. Powell ("an allowance to rut among the cheaper cuts / a scavenger: you feed off them. skinny skinny legs")¨and one must accept Barton's vision because, in the words of the publisher, it's the closest thing right now to a "homoerotic elegy for Canada's moment and place." Perhaps¨except, curiously, much of Hypothesis is written either in or about the southwestern United States and San Francisco, these locales sparking reminiscences, generating ideas, and delineating points-of-view that are not really clearly "Canadian." Besides, any discussion of a specific, especially "Canadian" homoeroticism would seem moot anyway: it is Barton himself who sets out as a latter-day Whitman, proffering the dissolution of borders, harmony between mankind/brothers/lovers, and the necessity of a communal sensual experience:
to know each other and how we ű or anyone
else ű come to see ourselves as men, as one
country in this city of fucking and shopping
of vistas and fogÓ
This utopian desire for transience and travelability appears in a poem by Powell ("here is a man from a country without borders / anyone can cross over: share his bed."), whose work echoes in Barton's. Just as Barton co-opts images, stances and lineage, so too do his stylistics (whether he knows it or not) share affinities with, and similarities to, several other current poets whose primary charge is pushing the boundaries of syntax. This fact is not as grating to the reader as, say, seeing in Barton exact lines or attitudes culled from other poets, for this current mode is an exciting one that is relegating the Old Lyricism to the dustbin. Barton's meandering, geomorphic lines resemble frontier territory, a strange Edenic place where the promise of discovery pulls the reader¨sometimes, despite his reservations and in spite of his hesitations¨through odd enjambments and breaks. When confronted with "Anthropomorphism," the narrator is literally and figuratively at the edge of a canyon, contemplating the best way to cross¨and wondering exactly what might lie on the other side¨as evidenced by abrupt enjambment, the gaping space between lines, the unsettling, rift-edge fragmentation caused by the pattern of unevenly-ended lines:
beyond the four compass points
two other directions offer
solace in the Southwest
the viscera split
open countless times by
we never tire of gazing
down into, fissures
in the Earth we have all
come from (such anthropo
morphism) to move up
toward the sky, stars
Barton's page is an invigorating landscape¨though not as often as one would like¨where natural peaks and valleys mirror the psychic ones, wrought in the vein of current poets including Standard Schaefer, Eleni Sikelianos, Martin Corless-Smith and Peter Dent, to name only a few.
Barton is not an epigone by any stretch. Sweet Ellipsis and Designs from the Interior are part of the contemporary poetry canon of Canada, and elsewhere, because they do what Derrida once proffered as crucial for any text to do: that it must "menaceÓat once the breath, the spirit, and history." To continue the paraphrase, only he who would work against the "metaphysics of the proper," against pre-existing and already-appropriated symbols and language and conventions, can create something original and, therefore, for lack of a better word, important. Hypothesis¨grounded in sameness with other current texts with similar and different concerns, though admirably plying a new poetic terrain¨leaves no unpleasant aftertaste, yet is merely absorbed and moved on from, the saddest end of a dish, a lover, a book. ˛
Ethan Paquin edits Slope (www.slope.org) and the press, Slope Editions. His first book of poetry, The Makeshift, was released in the U.K. in August 2002. He is an Assistant Professor of Humanities at Medaille College in Buffalo, N.Y.