Sweet Ellipsis

by John Barton,
120 pages,
ISBN: 1550223542

Post Your Opinion
Barton's Funk
by Richard Vaughan

Twenty years and a half dozen acclaimed books into his career as one of Canada's most celebrated poets, John Barton has yet to become the fixed, or fixated, commodity we expect our poets to grow up to be. While there is a stuffed handbag's worth of style in his new work, there is little evidence of the settling, the concretizing of a Barton Style-he remains playfully two hopscotches ahead of his readers, and we are the luckier for his agility.

Barton's poetic slutting-one moment he's all over the New York Confessional school like a humpy teenager, the next he's settled in and bought a condo with the Ottawa Lyricists-betrays a writerly mind engaged by the need to match subject with form, narrative with norm. Barton practises a brand of poetic interior design that says, simply, the shape of the poem determines how we read its content.

And what glowing, book-lined rooms he invites us to share! An unreconstructed fireside story-teller, he knows that interiors, lavish or plain, are only as good as the telling scuff marks, prized souvenirs, and dark, secret corners they shelter.

They set up their instruments,

room left for dancing later

across the tiles of mica

in evening gloves and spats,

ascots of trailing mist knotted

at the neck, which diamonds

also choke, sudden

stars like ice melting

in glasses at the bar,

melting because no one drinks

any longer, but they fancy

the heaviness of the leaded crystal,

the vodka aesthetic

and preternaturally chilled.

(from "Night of the Blue Moon")

Barton's subtleties, which dapple rather than obscure, should not, however, be confused with prudishness. He writes about the hurdles of gay intimacy in the plague years with an almost journalistic drive, as if hesitancy (indeed, coyness) about bending painful truths into clever curlicues of poesy were a betrayal to the cause, an act of biological treason.

Of the many, many poets (gay or straight) who have written about the rewriting of sexuality in the AIDS era, I find Barton's pairing of horror and horniness to be the most honest. Simply put, he knows that all that shaking in your boots won't make you any less keen to knock boots. While poems about AIDS tend to take one of two roads-sickbed snapshots (think Jill Battson, or me), or damn-the-T-cells bravado (think John Giorno or Ian Stephens)-Barton's poems merge these parallel paths with a boldness that sets his work far apart from sloganeering or CANFAR-approved pathos.

In the long poem "Homoeroticism", Barton quietly inserts the AIDS metaphor into an unsettling poem about the relationship between a father and a gay son; as if the virus itself had become a part of the Oedipal formula-a third, equally deadly parent.

I love him, of course, and of course, I love you.

But this is the last time we will sleep

together because he is afraid

of my body, the pleasure it gives him.

He is afraid to take my cock in his mouth;

he is afraid of his own darkness and the cut on

my lip.

Father, when I was small did I ever sneak

into bed with you, did I ever steal

some of your warmth?

This man in my arms tonight, he smells

thievery in my sweat; like you he nervously hums.

Father, this will be the last time I will sleep

with you,


Barton can see beyond the traditional formats of AIDS writing, to invest what was hitherto a stock-villain disease with more character and psychological resonance. It is this that heralds Barton's poems as the beginning of a new school of AIDS writing. The radicalness of his leap can hardly be overstated: what he is proposing is nothing less than an understanding of the disease as partner, not intruder, in the business of being gay.

When attempts to master the foreign fail, Barton offers, perhaps it is time to look at how much the alien has become familiar. Similarly, Sweet Ellipsis offers the reader a gaggle of poetic forms, and we get to watch Barton's experiment in re-acculturation play itself out, visually and formally, directly on the page.

For the average poetry fan, however, it is Barton's lapidist compositional skills, not his politics or genre play, that drive Sweet Ellipsis. For instance, the long poem sequence at the book's centre, "Lake Huron Variations", is a prime example of Barton's innovative mixing of confessional and minimalist tropes. He takes the two ends of the poetic spectrum and ties a lovely knot-the resulting poem is a tight bit of cat's cradle that makes me wonder why anecdote and arithmetic have never noticed they share a common, snarled middle.

My first attempt.

Rising up through

the allusive, love-algaed

rings of another

language at Collège Universitaire

Saint-Jean, it was taken

from me, pumped out

of my stomach at the University of Alberta

Hospital, then referred

to the Drop-In Clinic at the William

Aberhart Institute of

Psychiatry by an intern who might have been


a farmhand,

if I let myself remember, swim

back through my unconsciousness to that room

of definable emergencies, his finger

stuck unromantically

down my throat,

(from section V, "Lake Huron Variations")

Yes, yes, the poem, like most of the poetry in Sweet Ellipsis, is an unapologetic "mirror to life"-but so's an electron microscope. Barton's accomplishment in the poem, and in the book as a whole, is in his marked economy and rigour; particularly given the personal-history- (and personality-) charged material.

Rarely do such broad outpourings of authorial confession clock in so well under time. There are no hysterical arias in Sweet Ellipsis, only succinct percussions. Just like heartbeats. 

Richard Vaughan is a Toronto poet and journalist.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us