Visible Visions: The Selected Poems of Douglas Barbour
David A. Kent teaches English at Centennial College and is the editor of
Christian Poetry in Canada.
Reading a poet’s selected poems often involves a pedestrian tour of poetic fashions that have become passé. In, for example, its preoccupation with the poet’s own ancestral “roots,” Douglas Barbour’s Visible Visions does not entirely escape this predicament. We watch as Barbour’s interest in language emerges (e.g., p.29, with allusion to a baby’s acquisition of words) and then embodies itself in his increasing experimentation with typography, page space, and word sounds. We initially encounter a young poet with a firm grasp on formal symmetry; we are at first in the presence of a voice capable of celebration and confident about communicating. However, these attitudes are gradually supplanted by a fashionably disabling scepticism (e.g., p.66, about language and audience) and by a voice embittered by relationships gone wrong and now capable only of a bewildered sensuality (e.g., p.131, “Anger Song number 1”). When the idea of change is poetically incarnated in the sound poems of Shore Lines (two samples from this collection are included), the reader is genuinely delighted with Barbour’s clever inventiveness; but when old mutability is bewailed in love poems by a deliberately naive persona, the reader is disappointed by the apparent evasion. Early in his selected poems Barbour claims that his aim is “precision” (p.26) in his art. Alas, even granting the poet’s minimalist manner and premise, there does not seem to be a great deal of supporting evidence for this claim. Too often Barbour’s syntax seems overly dependent on modifiers like phrases and epithets; verbs are as absent as a sense of dynamism, and individual words do not carry with them a feeling of inevitability. Possibly my impression of a dominant stasis results from the pictorialism that Barbour frequently cultivates — the legacy of his painterly grandfather sometimes dubiously transferred into the medium of language.