I met poet John Barton about seventeen years ago at a University of Alberta conference titled de:Scribing Albertas. The conference brought together academics and writers and, often uncomfortably, had them face-to-face over the same text. Which is how I came to do a reading of landscape, memory and identity in John Barton’s poems while he sat kindly and patiently in the second row and didn’t hurtle chairs at me.
In an interview with him I taped at that conference, John Barton said,
I often play around at the extremities of metaphor. Right now I am quite interested in conflating seemingly unrelated ideas or images . . . the poem becomes a kind of aural photomontage composed of discordant, arbitrary splices.
This conflation continues in these two poems: public history, mythology, desire and personal loss all collide and thrum alongside one another.
Two years ago Barton was the writer-in-residence at University of New Brunswick where I teach. The two poems included here were written during his tenure in Fredericton. As beautiful as it is, this place is still sometimes an alien landscape to me. It’s with palimpsest pleasures that I read about Fredericton through Barton’s poetics and I invite you to collide, too.
Maritime Icarus, June 28, 1838
Upon discovering Keir Inches dead in Fredericton
after the coronation of Victoria Regina
in the nineteenth year of his life
Why should you keep falling through numbing blue
Layers of the St. John River, night’s soft dark
Mauves soon to black its crest, a misconstrued
Curve of known camber snagging you in stark
And tenacious currents, your fall no lark
You a volunteer from army quarters
On board a scow, launching fireworks to mark
A far queen’s ascent, their nitrous flicker
A seal torn free of by frantic limbs, its glister
Clinging to you as, dripping, they extract
Your corpse escaped into unsurveyed depths
Awash downstream among grey shoreline tracts
Of reeds below Oromocto, the length
Your life meant to take shedding light, its breadth
Praised as a simple crossing, bank to bank
Not a falling-in partway home, hope’s worth
Unwished-for, your half-read face bloated blank
Its unlikeness not unlike this freeze-and-thaw-franked
Stone still here to hold your grave in place
An anchor thrown off time’s foredeck to slow
Not stop a family’s drift, motto effaced
Its stance set flat in earth, soon known
In fissured pieces, tectonic plates thrown
Ajar by cracks swamped in lichened waves
Your bones falling still as you plunge through loam
Unaware if bursting through the craved-for
Surface is up or down, memory a breath staved
Off longer than this hour permits, breathless
As I stand primed from above to watch you
Fall, to haul you ashore, not prone to guess
Or make you what you were not or might not
Have sensed, though scarce years later, from the blue
—Sweet unencumbered man, my ancestor—
A friend’s remains lay vanished next to yours
Light’s substrates porous and me no reader
Of soils, though I would swim through each and no others.
Closing the Gate of Sorrow
…you were the axe at my side
in which my arm trusted, the knife in my sheath
the shield I carried, my glorious robe
the wide belt around my loins, and now
a harsh fate has torn you from me, forever.
by Stephen Mitchell
Ten years have sunk a foundation beneath me since the towers fell.
In your and their phantom presence, I have become another man.
Or his stand-in. A few cells snarling in retrospect’s Möbius strip
Are left to regenerate into bracing twists of conscience.
My body, as it uncurls, may feel warm if adrift were you
To ease in beside me while I doze, my eyes half shut, unallied
To the quiet verdant space you had hoped to reseed inside me
The sun burning my face clean of your green, expansive gaze.
Today I’d roll away a stranger, one not far from the lean, unsatisfied
Man you’d met by chance, though once you were the axe at my side.
Two towers fell, and the unlooked-for deaths of several thousand
So private and improbable, must not reconstruct as a backdrop
To how abruptly we came to be apart, though the down-rush
Of floor into floor, the avalanche of debris and ground-to-dust
Flesh and bone juggernauting through the Financial District
As TV watchers looked on, boiled up a haze to screen the disbelief
You projected in a flash upon my betrayal and untoward failure
To love, my untried fidelity an itinerant eye seeing manifest
Destiny in the regard of each man at every corner despite the interleaf
Of your hand in mine, in which my arm trusted, the knife in my sheath.
We fought for hours, the news ten years ago unable to blowtorch
Our gaze elsewhere, my remorse a match lighting your nerves.
Today I’d strike each deflection, not see our nosedive down through
What held us up as uncontrolled, the elevator cable a fuse unwinding
At live-stream speed word by threadbare word, my grip slipped free
Of, in despair, as you plummet, flame out in the searchlight’s strobe.
What gravity may be I’ve come to know, lacking your weight upon me
Though you’d fall under mine—the thrust of my randy indifference
Left you insatiable, another appetite you would not dare probe.
Your unexamined love became the shield I carried, my glorious robe.
Perspective one day highjacked jets, payloads intent as they streaked
Through frets of porous steel. Cut deeper into the century, I am still
Alive as someone here to mourn, not relive as mine what they’d felt
In advance of immolation, primed no more to see you in the shock
Of office workers catching wind of the approach, fuel about to spill
A timeless fear of not remaining calm, unsure of what could allow
Them to stay as they are before taking flight down stairs on fire
Or climbing higher: abyss or redemption not a choice, no unasked-for
Consequence rigged to look fated, and the resolve of nations I vow
Never again to loop into the wide belt around my loins, and now
Like Gilgamesh, millennia later, I close the gate of sorrow. No ends
Exist of the known world I can voyage to in avoidance of death
After the loss of a friend. We subside into earth or spread as light
On the wind in handfuls, not fists. And should we meet again
Our past won’t re-link us; no love is epic, and how cities fall
Can’t repeal how we came to live as citizens before, the favour
Tragedy offers us in its aftermath helpful only in how we rebuild.
Gilgamesh arrived home a just ruler and no longer divine. I wake to sun
Through blinds, the blankness of my cells open to rising light, the lover
I am: perhaps a kinder man, but a harsh fate has torn you from me, forever.
John Barton’s ten books of poetry and six chapbooks include For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin: Selected Poems (Nightwood, 2012) and Balletomane: The Program Notes of Lincoln Kirstein (JackPine, 2012). He lives in Victoria, where he edits The Malahat Review. His eleventh collection, Polari, is forthcoming from Goose Lane in April 2014.