Fables for Isolated Men


82 pages
ISBN 0-919349-20-X





Reviewed by Ellen Pilon

Ellen Pilon is a library assistant in the Patrick Power Library at Saint
Mary’s University in Halifax.


Toronto-born Barry Dempster was educated in child psychology and has worked at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital in Toronto. Fables for Isolated Men is his first published collection of poems. The poems are grouped into three sections: “Memoir” portrays the poet’s mother, father, an aunt, an uncle, and the poet as youth and father. “Useless Boys” depicts the poet’s view of externals: the heat of summer, marriage, a taxi driver, a piano player. “Isolated Men” describes internal feelings: the sense of isolation on a literal and figurative mountain top, the deflation of post-Christmas, the despair that time passes so quickly.

Memories of time past compared with time present is a prevalent theme. In “Uncle Claude” the poet recognizes that the revered uncle of his childhood has changed: “now when I see you / ... almost forget how big you once were / next to me.” The priest was a figure of awe when the poet was young but now is “an old, old man, as soft as hymns.” Many of the poems present old age, aging and death. The tone is not morbid or despairing but is almost religious, as in “Mother,” a beautiful poem depicting his mother in her kitchen watching the apple trees and giving birth to him; “we buried her by a river / ... If she looks up, flicking / the dirt off her eyelashes, she can see / the top branches / ... golden apples.” In “Three Women” the three lie in hospital beds waiting to die. Although only 30 himself, Dempster seems able to see through the eyes of the old. With age comes disillusionment. Dreams of love change in marriage: “whatever / dreams might come now, / we’ll exhale.” In “Useless Boys” the boys plan to succeed where their fathers failed, but fail themselves.

The vivid imagery, pared of superfluous description, gives memorable pictures and feelings which the poet communicates to his readers. He walks on ice; “I feel as if I were / walking on a window, between dimensions.” “Strange Things on Lazy Afternoons” describes that spacey, half-asleep sensation of floating. Some of the more complex poems attempt to express a sense of inner self. In “Half-Dead Birds the Cats Bring Home” the birds are “in the center of me.” In “The Colourless Cats,” “the night is inside my body.” Blindness, cats, apples, death, old age, aging, the inner self, valued memories of the past, and present emptiness are themes woven together in this beautiful collection of poems.


Dempster, Barry, “Fables for Isolated Men,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 21, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/38502.