Gary Barwin’s Porcupinities

Gary Barwin. The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House Books 2010).

Barwin is seen as somewhat experimental, & says some of these pieces ‘were written with the assistance of the Kurzweil Cybernetic Poet software. [but] Most used old-school English language technology.’ So what do we have here? Surprisingly, however written, they owe something to what might be called the Ashbery method: the words are clear, the grammatical structure also; but the relationship of the words to ordinary meaning is somewhat awry. These lines from ‘Fourteen Beautiful Dogs’ are exemplary:

a poem doesn’t have to have fourteen perfect lines
or else you’re spitting on graves

maybe you’ll slip up and tell a truth
stick your elbow into something

under the moon your tongue hangs out
you’d like to howl but

the horizon grows ever larger
please save my family from complications or sudden death

One of the things Barwin plays with, as seen here to some extent, is pronouns: these poems really mess with the lyric ‘I’, which slips & slides among many possibilities, almost none of which can be associated with the poet. Some are his kids, some just the person speaking. Meanwhile, there are a lot of almost-translations, riffs off other writers, grammatical & literary games, records of things overheard, & a kind of surreal play. Collage & bricolage at work. Thus the fiction writer writes the poems, but the stories here, if stories are implied, deliberately fail to resolve, the ‘characters’ dissolve into whatever, the pieces insist upon their instability, their mere possibility. Hearing him read from the book added to the pleasure; he mostly has solid rhythm, good sound, a fine sense of the comic, & a neat histrionic rhetoric of linguistic gesture.

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