The Burning Alphabet.


135 pages
ISBN 978-1-894078-42-9
DDC C811'.54





Reviewed by Douglas Barbour

Douglas Barbour is a professor of English at the University of Alberta.
He is the author of Lyric/anti-lyric : Essays on Contemporary Poetry,
Breath Takes, and Fragmenting Body Etc.


Barry Dempster is a lyric narrator, with plenty of “personal” stories to tell. He has a good descriptive vocabulary, a love of metaphor (often expressed in similes), and a winning sense of place in the always-changing world. The speaker in most of the poems in The Burning Alphabet seems meant to be read as “the author,” and the poems as autobiographical. As such, they work well. The 16 poems in the section “Sick Days,” for example, chart his own illness (not stated) with psychological insight but also a certain amount of conventional description and analysis. Perhaps there’s no way to escape that in such a sequence.


In the most interesting section, “Bad Habits,” he writes of three deaths with refreshing anger as well as sadness at the loss of friends and relatives. The anger seems to take him out of himself in a way that allows some escape from the usual traps of the lyric “I.” It also allows him to utilize the full wit of his observing eye: “A crow lands on the just-snowed oak in a flourish / of black hesitation, a blip in a skyful of flight plans.” Moments like these catch and hold a reader’s interest.


The final section, “The Crowd of Him,” is for, by, and about his now-dead father and his relationship with him. It achieves a finely tuned sense of love and devotion mixed with anger and loss. Some of the poems talk about the father as if reminiscing with friends; others speak directly to him, angrily demanding why he has gone: “You threw your life away, all 88 years, / the hospital a dumping ground for sprung bones / and leaky stuffing.” Finally, his father becomes “The father” of each of us: “Open all your poetry books, our fathers shooting / dirty looks, drooling bits of lyric.” And, finally, “My father is scripture in the books I write,” a figure of lyric tradition.


On the whole, The Burning Alphabet is a solid example of contemporary lyric narrative, often wrought to a high tension of language.


Dempster, Barry., “The Burning Alphabet.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 23, 2024,