Barwin anthology a crucial collection


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Gary Barwin’s For It Is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe: New & Selected Poems (Wolsak & Wynn, 256 pages, $25) hosts a stunning array of some of the best poems of the wide-ranging, playful and sometimes sombre author.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/08/2020 (941 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Gary Barwin’s For It Is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe: New & Selected Poems (Wolsak & Wynn, 256 pages, $25) hosts a stunning array of some of the best poems of the wide-ranging, playful and sometimes sombre author.

Edited by Alessandro Porco, who pens a lengthy and impressive introduction, the book offers one outstanding poem after another. Barwin is heavily influenced by surrealism and visual poetry, but often marries these to more conventional lyricism, for complex but inviting poems.

An example of Barwin’s dexterity: “Goodbye, AK-47 / AK-63 / AK-74 / AK-101 // Goodbye, AK-74M” … the poem continues at length in this way, in an ironic lament, an insincere elegy that reads at once like both hopeful, wishful thinking, and as a sad acceptance of how these weapons will never go away.

Barwin’s best poems, like the underappreciated Shopping for Deer, are among the best poems ever written in this country, and this collection stands apart from the lazy “Selecteds” we so often see. Absolutely stellar and necessary.

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Canisia Lubrin’s The Dyzgraphxst (McClelland & Stewart, 168 pages, $21) presents a figure named Jejune (playing off a French word that could translate as “artless”) while examining the nature of having a self, and that self trying to navigate the complexities of modern political and social life in a crumbling environment.

“I’ve known the sharp world and it is imagined and gerund,” writes Lubrin, and the word “gerund” suggests this “sharp world” is also imagining us even as we must work our imaginations upon it in order to take hold of even the smallest portion of reality in our slippery grasps.

Lubrin’s Jejune figures almost like an anti-muse, “whose earth is left without a means to unwant us in place, why / we sing-back anyway” remaining a mystery of sorts. A complex and unconventional collection of crinkly and deep-cutting lines.

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Douglas Walbourne-Gough’s Crow Gulch (Icehouse/Goose Lane, 82 pages, $20) takes as its muse a now-gone sub-area of Newfoundland’s Corner Brook that served as “dumping ground” for “socially unacceptable” citizens until they were “legally ushered from their homes.”

The history of Crow Gulch thus winds together the history of Canada’s long war with its Indigenous population and other people swept up in its colonial projects. “Lulled by the intimacy of wood, / I almost forget — a knife is fraught / with urge, at odds with its edge.”

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Evelyn Lau’s Pineapple Express (Anvil, 106 pages, $18) takes inspiration from “vivid antidepressant dreams” where “it’s all pastels and ice cream, except / when it’s blood, carcasses, screams.”

In one poem, while musing on mental illness and suicide, Lau’s speaker considers a photo of a newborn and asks herself, “Little prince, with your disdainful mouth, / slick of hair, eyes stitched shut / against the overwhelming world — / will you be spared?”

As we ask ourselves similar questions in these trying times, these four differing collections offer us a host of angles and handles on how art-making matters or fails to matter to our overwhelming lives.

Jonathan Ball’s first book, Ex Machina, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary and to celebrate it is free at

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