Counting Out the Millennium

by John Oughton,
84 pages,
ISBN: 1877603376

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The Only Real Estate
by Kenneth Sherman

John Oughton has had a sporadic career as a poet. His first book, Taking Tree Trains (1973), was followed eleven years later by Gearing of Love. This has been partly due to the fact that Oughton's interests are many. He is an accomplished photographer, an imaginative musician, and a knowledgeable computer buff. When he has turned his attention to poetry, the results have often been arresting. His third book, Mata Hari's Lost Words (1988), was a superb long poem in the tradition of Gwendolyn's MacEwen's The T. E. Lawrence Poems. His new book, Counting Out the Millennium, is notable for its wide stylistic and thematic range, its personable voice, and its attempt to render intense and complex emotional states. It is, in my opinion, his most satisfying work to date.

Oughton's poems have tended to fall into three categories: there are the elegiac poems; there are the short tableau poems that capture, à la William Carlos Williams, some contemporary scene; and, most prevalent, there are long, free-form satirical poems. Oughton's language, especially in the satirical poems, once owed much to the Beats. (He studied for a time with Allen Ginsberg at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.) In this recent book, echoes of the Beats have for the most part vanished; the language has become plainer and, in my estimation, stronger. And there's a new element in Oughton's oeuvre: a type of metaphysical poem that examines the nature and structure of language, not in a muddled, fashionable postmodernist style, but with clarity and precision.

This is evident from the book's first poem, "Notes from the Travel Journal of Doctor Syntax". Oughton relates in a prefatory note that Dr. Syntax, a creation of the English artist Thomas Rowlandson, was fleshed out in verses by a journalist, William Combe. Evidently the Syntax character toured England, capturing aspects of his travels in verse and line drawings. It's not clear what all this has to do with Oughton's book since the idea is not fully worked out. But it does succeed in pointing the reader to contemporary problems around the relationship between language, technology, and our individualism:

To be mad all that's required

is to stand in one place and

understand all signals passing through your head

radio TV radar microwaves shortwave CB RF

X-band K-band satellite voices data ghosts

cops pilots and lonely hearts

talk shows hot picks newsbits and traffic watches

static all the cellular and stellar babble

that one voice talking alone denies

The theme is taken up a few pages later in the highly effective "What's Real at the Mars Café", in which the poet overhears "three business suits" discussing ways to pervert language to sell real estate. After listening to their conversation, the poet concludes, "language is the only real estate we build on" while "these men deal.in their own peculiar words/ that fence off their estate of the real."

Language and our use and misuse of it are taken up again (as a theme) at the end of the book in successful poems like "The Perceivability of Poetry", "The White Page", and the short sequence "Rimbaud Deliberately Mistranslated". The poetry in between, however, does not for the most part echo the concerns of these poems. That is a shame, since such echoing would have produced a more interesting and stronger book.

Nonetheless, there is more than enough in between these "language" poems that will impress the readers. I said earlier that Oughton has a predilection for writing satirical poems. This is refreshing since real satire is hard to come by nowadays, in either prose or verse. Especially humorous is the poem "Edville", a mixed homage to, and critique of, Mr. Mirvish, whom Oughton refers to as "his Edship", "the Lord Mayor of Edville/ the megaphone of himself". Equally effective are the poems "I'm in Love with My Hoover", and "Proposal for Prince Charles", in which Oughton suggests that he and Charles switch roles:

So here's the deal:

I get the Aston Martins, the Jags,

the Scottish estates, the annual income.

In return I promise to shake hands warmly

with all, include them in a brief chat

that never touches politics.

And you get the six courses per term to teach-

a real job at last!-the bills, the basement


the garden of rust on the '83 Acadian.

As for the tableau-style poems, I would point to "Parliament St. Tableau", notable for its accurate depiction and for the way in which it suggests, through the last image of a wino's hand gestures, several possible themes:

A man is parked

on his back by the curb

in a suit torn and grey

arms legs weakly waving

like a rolled-over beetle.

one side of his face

raw red meat. The blood

draws eyes, wino hurt.

Two cops vertical pillars

who ignore normally his pain

look down blue arms folded

at his hands offering gestures

as if explaining himself.

Elegiac poems-the remaining category of the three I mentioned near the beginning-have often been Oughton's most impressive work (see, for instance, "For My Dead Sister", in Gearing of Love). There are more poems about loss in this book than in any of his previous collections, which is understandable since age brings about more opportunities for what Elizabeth Bishop so aptly called "the one art of losing". Though some of these poems are too sentimental ("Cat Ending" and "All That Counts"), most prove worth the risk involved in writing on very personal subjects. Some concern the birth of Oughton's daughter and the later break-up of his marriage. But by far the most impressive poem in this category, and in the whole collection, is "Stroke/Oblique", which Oughton wrote for his mother after she suffered a stroke. The poem is exceptional because it is not only deeply moving, but also deals intelligently with the theme of language. It fuses the emotional and intellectual facets of the poet, and serves as a strong centrepiece for the book. Addressing his disabled mother, Oughton presents us with the portrait of a once bright, articulate woman "who took on the Globe's Friday cross-word every week/ "gyre" "schist" and "owlet" (Hamlet's night bird?)/ familiar as the irises in your garden." Now she cannot spell her own name.

Given such effective poems, we can only hope that Oughton will devote more time to serving his Muse. 

Kenneth Sherman's most recent book is Void & Voice: Essays on Literary & Historical Currents (Mosaic).


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