The Most Charming Creatures By Gary Barwin
(Toronto, ON: ECW Press, 2022, $21.95, 128 pages)
Review by Bill Neumire
I am going to put
into a poem
……………..in a way
Thus, with the poem “Everything,” begins Gary Barwin’s latest poetry collection, The Most Charming Creatures. Barwin, who has written 26 books, is also a composer (he earned his PhD in music composition) and multidisciplinary artist. Progressing in four sections, The Most Charming Creatures—follow-up to Barwin’s recent 2019 Selected Poems: For It Is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe—takes its title from a science monograph. Explaining the title in an interview with Open Books, Barwin said:
There is a ghost in this book, the title, The Most Charming Creatures, because it came from the title of a poem which, in the end, I took out of the book. The phrase comes from Ernst Haeckel’s Monograph on Radiolarians, published in 1862. He described radiolarians, ancient single-celled organisms with mineral skeletons, as “the most charming creatures.” But look: we’re all the most charming creatures. Who? Us. Letters. Words. We neurons.
The creature-poems herein reflect a frenetic variety, one that maintains as its central thread the humorous and wry poet inflecting every line. For his part, though, Barwin has balked at the traditional idea of voice, saying, “You don’t necessarily have ‘a voice’ or ‘personal style.’ I think your ‘voice’ is really just your curiosity and your process.” And curiosity as a device is clearly at work here. At times, bouncing between discursive amusements, it’s even hard to say how the poems are connected; rather, as the speaker of “Portal” says, “evening has a broken mind,” and this medley laid across the table reflects that broken-mindedness. But evening is no darkened atmosphere here; Barwin’s words are bright and vivacious as he delights in modes of creation, the impetus triggering each poem often laid bare or explicitly referenced as in the line “n weeping +1.” And the poem “Phases” is a vertical line of five circle shapes made of the letters in moon, each made in a different sequence. Each of these poems indirectly or, in “Mountains” quite directly, asks the reader, “What do you expect of a poem?”. It’s clear that Barwin expects fun—to have it and to poke it, and in the process to maintain a meta-poetic “voice” that always speaks in the present of poem-creation, modeling the construction of an ars poetica being shaped and reshaped poem-by-poem. This continues into the acknowledgments section where he says the following:
All texts are a lie that reveals a secret about another text. Of course, it’s also true that language itself is a lie which reveals a secret, too. But it’s always also its own truth. Many of these poems were achieved in part by ‘translating’ a poem by running it many times from one different distantly related language into another using Google Translate and then finally back to English. Sometimes a process related to N+7 was used, often employing a translator at Spoonbill.org in order to create a beautiful and compelling lie, vivid with secrets.
This is not simply a poet rolling around in language for the sake of the game; there’s also an empathy hueing the whole, one that surfaces ephemerally in lines like this from “E & O”:
this is where we are.
The voice can gently chastise toward self-correction, too, as in “No one has taken the world from us” or “who is this ‘we’ we make drink the world?”. And it can recognize its own vulnerability, as in “yeah I need / help with the dread.” There’s even a series of poems as parables with morals articulated at the end like “Moral: Joy and sorrow remain the same.” Though it makes a push at large life abstractions—“They told us in science class: Love + Time = Death”—its really humanistic power is its celebration of the more mysteriously earthly and personal:
here we are
what’s inside us?
The poems of The Most Charming Creatures are constantly reading themselves back to themselves; the speaker escorts every word, living there with them. It’s a speaker who says, in “I Won’t Claim,” “By the time you finish reading / You will be older. Sadder. / Wiser.” You can tell Barwin wrestles with the limits of poetry, asking and answering, “what can a poem do? / it can refer to itself.” This is both a funny moment, a true description of the book, and a signal that the poet has had genuine ruminations about the borders and purposes of his art. Always a commentary on its own making, these poems—and more and more, I’m inclined to call the ‘speaker’ of these poems the character that is the poem itself—reach out to “apologize / the poem has / come to this” or to justify: “this is improvised. This is ancient history. This is how we somehow keep moving with a curiosity for the strange, compassionate and beautiful.” There are even poems about the process of submitting poems, and one poem, simply called “Sad Poem,” goes full Inception:
We’re inside it. How could we tell?
What an even sadder story:
the sad poem is stuck inside
a sad poem and does not know itself.
In the end, they ask coyly, “what kind of authority—possibly malevolent authority
will I project?”.
Part of the fun Barwin has in making and inhabiting these poems is an allusive and dad-jokey humor. The lines are constantly referential within a pool of poetry history, as “Thank You” says, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but / while we watch.” Persistently referential in its game-playing, there are nods, afters, imitations, and dedications to a wide swath: Rachel Blau Duplessis, Alice Burdick, Edward Thomas, Stuart Ross, Seamus Heaney, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lucretius, Kim Hyesoon, Bill Knott, Alice Munroe, and Margaret Atwood to name a few. In fact, the first page of text (before the table of contents and before the epigraph) is a boxed sign that reads:
none of the letters
of plums are in
icebox. Only some
of the letters of
forgive me are.
Already the jokester and name-dropper even in the prologue, Barwin’s immense volume of nods is the stuff of a hearty acknowledgments section (one he titles “Knowes and Acnotedgements”). And then there’s a deeply poignant moment in the acknowledgment and reverence for Barwin’s friend and contemporary, David McFadden, as “Something Else” (as if to pause, as if to separate this from the laughs around it) reads, “David McFadden, you said / we should write every day / and today was your funeral.” His poem, “Autobiography of the Other” tells us that “Art is your committee for recovery.” And as these poems are so inseparable from their poet, and the poet from his history and community of poets and artists, it’s easy to see how the dread requires just such a committee, how the committee is the thread that makes this project feel more cohesive than it might initially seem.