In an interview from June 2010, Canadian poet Gary Barwin expressed his discomfort with being labeled as a surrealist writer and performer. In the early twenty-first century, the term Surrealism risks mystifying as much as it illuminates. “I always have some misgivings about the term when applied outside of its original context,” explains Barwin.
[I]t points to the dominance of realism as a creative mode or, at least, to its dominance in our perception of our perceptions. What isn’t “realistic” is often called “surrealism” by default, though, really, there are many modes of everyday engagement with our thoughts and perceptions that are outside what we categorize as realistic. I always think, What exactly is being realistically represented, anyway? What counts as real? What conventions do we have to render invisible in order to see some work as “realistic”? As if I were a painter, I see my writing as ranging from the seemingly entirely abstract to the quasi-representational. And of course, what is abstract may elicit deep feelings or questions. Is the colour blue abstract or is it realistic? Is it unrelated to emotion and perception?
On the one hand, historically significant examples of Surrealism in the history of Canadian avant-garde literature and art exist, including works by Bertram Brooker and W.W.E. Ross, Brion Gysin and his Dreamachine, Les Automatistes of the 1940s in Quebec, and, as Gregory Betts documents, a west coast group of the 1960s and 1970s that included bill bissett and David UU. (A recent issue of Open Letter [15.3: 2013], edited by Betts and Beatriz Hausner, is dedicated to the study of “Surrealism in Canada.”) In October 2004, Toronto’s Mercury Press published Surreal Estate: 13 Poets Under the Influence (ed. Stuart Ross), an anthology of contemporary Canadian poets (including Barwin) writing, to varying degrees, under a decidedly apolitical sign of French Surrealism. Thus, for better or worse, Surrealism has successfully transcended its “original context.” As David UU writes, “surrealism existed before me and i firmly believe that it will survive me.”
On the other hand, Barwin’s sensitively expressed resistance to the willy-nilly application of the deracinated term is not without merit. Elsewhere I, too, have expressed my own concerns with Surrealism, especially in light of how it is co-opted in the popular culture of late capitalism: from advertising campaigns to cookbooks, to reality TV such as VH1’s The Surreal Life and music (e.g., have you ever chatted with a high Pink Floyd fan?). This general diffusion drives, in part, the heated debates over Surrealism’s recent “soft” and “hard” varieties— with all sorts of gendered, sexual, and national implications affixed to those terms. Furthermore, Barwin correctly observes that, inadvertently, the use of Surrealism as an interpretive frame for the production and reception of art privileges and naturalizes realism as the representational mode, rendering the power of its conventions “invisible” and, thus, all the more pernicious.
Barwin proposes that “the real” (as an ontological category) and “realism” (as an aesthetic category) are contingent and, perhaps, elusive values. They exist on a Slip’N Slide representational spectrum that joyously includes the abstract, absurd, nonsensical, or surreal, just as the musical spectrum extends from tonal to atonal practices, from sound to silence, and from digital to natural instrumentation.
I provide these prefatory remarks to acknowledge just how complicated it is to find a way to talk about a poet like Barwin— to preserve the alterity of his poetry and poetics and to situate him in socio-historical context (e.g., from studying poetry with Frank Davey and bpNichol at York University and earning his Ph.D. from the experimental music program at Buffalo to the Toronto small-press scene of the 1990s and 2000s through which he circulated his Serif of Nottingham chapbooks and literary ephemera) while, at the same time, not automatically subjecting his creative practice to what Pierre Bourdieu calls “the force of the preconstructed,” i.e., the history of Surrealism in Canada— even if Barwin does share some historical and bibliographic affinities with the likes of Alice Burdick, Stuart Ross, and Steve Venright.
The publication of Barwin’s new collection, Moon Baboon Canoe (Mansfield Press, 2014 ), is an occasion to read his work without recourse to the aesthetic or political confines of the surreal or Surrealism. One of the results of such an approach, for example, is to recognize Barwin’s knack for poetic storytelling. The man from Hamilton can spin a yarn. In fact, the book’s title poem is what folklorists might call a tall tale. Typically, a tall tale is a story that derives its humor from “clear impossibilities and gross exaggerations of natural phenomena,” according to Carolyn S. Brown. While it makes no claim to be factual or true, the tall tale works best when delivered by an otherwise reliable, grounded narrator.
The title’s three apposite terms are, at first glance, difficult to reconcile. They seem to function, alternately, as a parody of the haiku form (i.e., Basho’s iconic frog comically transformed into the eponymous baboon); as an inexplicable triptych of glyphs carved into the walls of some lost, primitive cave in southwestern Ontario; or, more simply and humorously, as the set-up to a ol’ fashioned bar joke— only, in this case, Barwin’s poetic imagination recasts the priest, minister, and rabbi. He weaves the three terms together immediately, with ease and flair:
a baboon rents a canoe
then smashes into the moon
fragments of moon, baboon, canoe
rain down (42)
A feeling of loss quickly overwhelms the comic opening (e.g., there are echoes of Shelley’s lament for Keats: “The breath whose might I have invok’d in song / Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven, / Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng”):
as you breathe your lungs fill with
moon, baboon, canoe
moon, baboon, canoe
inside each breath
people who I love, you say
people about whom I care
moon, baboon, canoe
moon, shoelace, canoe
An anarchic “shoelace” is loosed upon the poem. It trips up the grammatical, semantic, and rhythmic order of the repeated “moon, baboon, canoe” (e.g., “shoelace” is a spondee, while “baboon” is an iamb; and the oo [“oe”] sound is displaced from its regular position). Where is the baboon? The final two lines— each heavily weighted— are wails of mourning for that which is lost. The poem is delivered by a speaker who doesn’t condescendingly wink about its seemingly silly conceit, thus ensuring the poem’s final turn from tall tale to moving lament is as affecting as it is. O, weep for Lycidas, Adonais, Baboon….
In “Postcard,” Barwin tries his hand at another mode of popular storytelling: the coming-of-age tale. In 1973, the speaker’s father gifts him (age thirteen) with a microscope. The scientific instrument magnifies minute, difficult-to-see materials, expanding the scale with which we measure the world and its meanings. At the same time, the young teen is obsessed with whales— the largest of mammals. A traumatic event mediates the boy’s sense of small (microscopic) and large (whale): his mother travels away from their home to Sudbury (“the Brockdan Motel . . . / Hwy 69, three miles / south of Sudbury” ). But she sends a postcard to her lonely son; and in a creative attempt to be close to her, he subjects the postcard to the microscope’s magnifying lens:
I look up close at the window
and you’re in there
lying on the bedspread
gazing at ceiling tiles
their strange orange stains (12)
A lesser poem would have ended there. However, Barwin dresses down into a Freudian slip. The young boy (now a man) recalls a dream he had that same year—1973:
of prehistoric elves
sitting in circles
waiting for someone
to invent Elvish
then some wiseacre elf
opens his mouth
but none of the elves
know what it means (13)
The dream is a foundation myth for language. In an act of daring and invention, the “wiseacre elf // opens his mouth / and speaks.” He gives his community of fellow “prehistoric elves” first permission to name and interpret the world; he gives them agency. In other words, he’s a poet. Accordingly, he also suffers as an alienated figure within his immediate social circle.
I’m not sure I know what it “means,” but the poem’s finale persuasively synthesizes its earlier parts— the microscope, the postcard, the whale, and the elvish dream:
under the microscope
you are colored dots
fields of inky texture
I’m a whale
inside me are elves
twisting like leaves
I’ll never love anything
as much as I love
this poem[.] (13-14)
Why does he love “this poem”? It’s a creative act that connects disparate, lost, or forgotten times, places, languages, and experiences. Grammatically, the speaker even connects the past and present by using the same tense. In addition, the poem collapses the artificial disciplinary distinction between scientific (microscope) and artistic (dream) methods of inquiry. They both fulfill the needs of the teenage boy attempting to survive his loneliness.
Of course, Barwin is more than just a poetic storyteller. Consider the six-part poem, “Seedpod Microfiche,” originally published in chapbook form by Rob McLennan’s Above/Ground Press. It’s an example of Merleu-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception in action, as Barwin traces the auditory and visual shape shifting of language.
The first poem in the sequence functions as a source text, or “seedpod,” delimiting an archive of potential sounds, images, and metaphors; and, using the original source text, each subsequent poem is based on “seeds” of near rhyme, visual rhyme, mistranslation, malapropism, paragram, erasure, substitution, recombination, and formal and syntactic realignments. (In musical terms, Barwin is experimenting with modular aesthetics.) Here are examples of how each section of the poem reproduces, splitting away with a difference:
a glass blade, a truck
a small son
a constellation (57)
a glimmering blade, a small truck
a grass son, a constellation of lines (58)
glass braid of the eclipse
winter makes smaller our small sun
for whom consolation
is everywhere (59)
there is, my love,
a stethoscope whose end
are everywhere (57)
there is my love for a stethoscope
is everything (58)
love like a stethoscope
with neither ears nor heartbeats (61)
a stethoscope whose end
is its beginning
and whose beginning
is also twilight (62)
This kind of textual play recalls similar works by bpNichol or Steve McCaffery. But the sequence’s title elevates the material into a philosophically rich area, suggesting that language is neither/both an organic and synthetic storage system that preserves but also distorts our historical memory and futurity.
“Seedpod Microfiche” is one of two longer poems in Moon Baboon Canoe— the other, “Woodland Road with Travellers,” is an eight-part ekphrasis poem composed in memory of Kerry Schooley. A Hamilton-based writer, teacher, performance poet, and anthologist, Schooley died in 2010. He was well regarded as the editor of three volumes of noir fiction (Iced, Hard Boiled Love, and Revenge) published by Toronto’s Insomniac Press, and he was an inspirational figure in the Hamilton literary community, organizing and curating events.
Barwin’s “Woodland Road with Travellers” responds to Jan Breughel the Elder’s 1607 painting of the same name. The painting presents a series of peasants coming and going along an especially unwelcoming forest passage. Tree limbs are broken, and skeletal remains are scattered. Carriages threaten to topple on the uneven road. A river crossing is especially difficult on the horses. The peasants’ faces carry expressions of exhaustion, and the animals— a few dogs, in particular— look disoriented.
they walk a road that was never a road
the travellers with their burdens
trudging through the shady wood
their children tramp beside them
or are carried in their arms
one girl with a moth instead of an eye
a woman with no legs but
but a skirt of birds, and she moves like water
dark hair braided by the tide (27)
Barwin’s mix of allegory (“travellers with their burdens”), pareidolia (“a moth instead of an eye”), and literalism (“a woman with no legs / but a skirt of birds”— she carries a cage of birds at her hip) results in a verbal document that is disarmingly faithful and unfaithful to Breughel’s painting. Barwin also attends to the materiality of the painting, notably its colors: “the traditional thoughts: / browns, greens, blue // a light-filled radiance” (34). Breughel’s colors dramatize the movement out of the forest (brown and green) into a pastoral clearing (blue and white).
But Barwin makes the occasion of looking at Breughel’s painting into something more. It is a meditation on the Orphic theme of crossing over from the living to the dead, from past to future, from forest to pasture, from country to city, from shade to light (and, rather reflexively, from painting to poem and back again). In doing so, he dematerializes Breughel’s panel, imagining new and unexpected uses for it:
those in the kitchen whose minds travel
walking through forests
those who make toast and think of mountains
unwalking like forests
leaves that think of trees
the horizon which only exists from far away
time itself a leaf
in nature, the scientists say
beauty is created through death
we make things faster
we make things slower
you draw a line
knowing you’ll have to cross it (31)
“This is what it is to live,” explains Barwin (32)— an accumulation of crossings in everyday life (e.g., in the kitchen, making toast) against which we are observed, measured, and defined.
In Breughel’s painting, there is a city in the distance. Its shape is blurry, but it is there on the horizon (“the horizon which only exists from far away” ). An unknown quantity without defined or knowable shape or colors, the city absorbs and feeds the hopes and dreams projected on to it by the peasant travellers. A local reading of the poem suggests that Barwin via Breughel is critiquing the geopolitics of literary aesthetics and publishing— the small, vibrant, and non-commercial community of writers in Hamilton (the forest’s edge) in relation to the large, homogenized, and commercial interests of Toronto (the distant city). How do the travellers survive without being disenchanted by the city? It turns out that Breughel’s painting’s afterlife includes reckoning with the Q.E.W. and 401 east.
In Moon Baboon Canoe’s fifth section, Barwin deliberately dabbles in traditional poetic genres and modes, including the pastoral (“Eclogging”), aubade (“Aubade”), psalm (“Psalm”), ballad (“Toast”), and spiritual (“Protection Song”). He also includes translations (“Coffee Shop”) and song lyrics (“The Birds” and “Song” have appeared in recordings by Hungarian-American composer Dennis Báthory-Kitsz). But this self-consciously literary suite is most noteworthy because poems like “Eclogging” and “Psalm” offer the only real shifts in Barwin’s prosody, as he turns to a long, vatic line in order to supplement his declamatory grammar and satiric tone:
Nature, I hate you
and your petty flummoxing of the butterfly’s wingdust
your immersive credo is irritating
your pneumatic pontificating does nothing to assuage the oxidizing Chevy of the
aaaaaaaared-shifted subdwarf sternum-thumper that is upper management and my
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Nature, because of you, a profusion of fission-ready Midget Fighting League
aaaaaaalions are ready to frack my Oronoco-infused hashtag-rich limb-jungle
aaaaaaavein-doilies rendering the Antarctic taxidermy of my soul’s subterranean
aaaaaaaknife block, a geodesic Isaac Brock triumph of isometric plat-tectonic
In addition, these poems traffic explicitly in the demotic. In his suburban recasting of psalm 23, for example, Barwin moves between the Old Testament’s arch lingo (“in death shade, in night valleys” ) and Blaxploitation, childlike nonsense, and camp.
I don’t want to admit it
but I’ve been a bad sheep
for they let me lie down on the sweet lawn
helped me to speechless waters
restored my painful feet
they led me down garden paths that were not ironic
or filled with worrisome garden gnomes
but lit upon the shed of happiness
I’ve walked in death shade, in night valleys
in paddocks where invariably I was dark
yay! as my niece says sarcastically
and because they followed me I didn’t fear evil (70)
Ultimately, in this final section, Barwin’s poetry seems trying to directly address issues. There is an about-ness to the poetry that is easy enough to pin down. Consider the short lyric “Nature Poem”:
even on the sidewalk
I want to be a nature poet
this summer light is nature
so is the air and
the rain-soaked road
scooping up after my dog
the bag warm as my dog’s insides
yes it’s nature inside
here in Hamilton, Ontario (79)
Barwin ostensibly wants to release nature from its fetishized, idealized form, and he does so by spatially relocating the pastoral (his “dog’s insides” included) within the city limits. In “Protection Song,” he addresses the history of enslavement and persecution endured by the Jewish and African diaspora.
a crowd of friends marveling at ships
fear of death
a fear of death beside you
parents, wife, children, friend
those whom you wish had no death
that they sail on the river
on the sky sailing in the river
those that sail endlessly and without fear
O sky-faced baby
blackfaced Jew and Jewfaced black
who will protect you
the birds swimming
the banjos soft and low (72-3)
The poem’s diction, imagery, and final eschatological turn have the feeling of a spiritual, equal parts lament and celebration. However, that the poem is composed “after Al Jolson” makes it difficult to draw a clear, DuBoisian color line between its sincerity and parody. (The racial politics of the poem change when mapped north of the Canada-United States border.)
In reading Barwin against the surrealist grain, then, he is revealed as a gifted storyteller, phenomenologist, elegist, satirist, songwriter and nature poet— all of which are informed by his investment in the local and a disposition toward theosophical speculation. The poetic line and syntax are not primary concerns for Barwin. They are functional, carrying forward in time the impossible conceit (e.g., how to connect the moon, a baboon, and a canoe) and the paragram (“words that don’t say what they should” ), both of which engender his most memorable poems. For example, “Bright Morning” hinges on the punning affinity between pixel and pistol:
at first I cannot read
by your pixel light
then one morning
I stop trying
load you into the gun
o bright morning
o bright morning song
I pull the trigger
and you’re gone (49)
Or, the poem “A Squirrel Considers the Sky” repeatedly turns over the metaphoric association of stars and nuts. That sort of turning produces the semantic and rhythmic torsion central to Barwin’s poetics.
His poetry is one of microscopic inflections that take on whale-sized importance. Letters, words, and phrases are displaced, replaced, rearranged, twisted, broken, and erased. But his poetry doesn’t feel like an exercise. It’s not simply a language-game. I would never describe it as self-indulgent. Barwin’s poetry is possessed by a desire to discover the source of “the light,” whether God, grace, love, knowledge, or the city on the horizon. He locates that source— potentially and paradoxically— in the typographic darkness and opacity of the Word (or, for at least a moment, in Whitman):
everything in the dictionary
is just words
where does the light come from
so small? (48)
 Alex Porco, “A Grammatical Scale: An Interview with Gary Barwin,” Open Book Toronto, n.pag.
 Qtd. in Gregory Betts, Avant-Garde Canadian Literature: The Early Manifestations (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), p. 186.
 Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc J.D. Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 251.
 Carolyn Brown, The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987), p. 10.
 Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Adonais,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), p. 654.
Alex Porco is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He specializes in twentieth-century poetry and poetics. He received his Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo.