Writer in Residence

Body Parts

By Barry Dempster

Am I writing the same poem over and over again? My books are teeming with the invisible and a state of loneliness that could be a one-man cold war. I never set out to revisit these themes, but they almost always find a way to express themselves in poem after poem. It’s like I’m the insect inside the amber.

I do my best to challenge the language, to shift the music of my approach from a steep blues to a thunderous symphony. No more disappearing acts. But faced down by a particularly dramatic verb, I somehow evaporate. The great unseen. The frame shatters and I crumble into a thousand pieces.

Once, reading to a university class, a young woman asked why my poems were full of body parts. Apparently, I can’t keep myself whole. Wrists and lips and knees are scattered all over the place. Did someone forget to connect-the-dots? I try to explain how I have trouble holding myself together. It’s not a case of non-attachment or a schizoid impasse. I simply see the parts more than the whole. My writing is more sewing than embroidering.

I read an interview with American poet Bob Hicok where he confessed to such a narrow skill set that he often feels like his voice hardly makes a dent. But toss in all those other poets and he can hear his voice as part of a larger chorus. Maybe it’s not that I’m disembodied after all. A piece of me meets a part of you, etcetera. My thumb, your clavicle. A choir of fragments all hitting the right note.

Today, I wrote about catching fish with my bare hands. I can’t begin to count the number of nerves and muscles responsible for such dexterity. But then I realize that the fish are submerged parts of myself. And that the poem has me existing only from the elbows down. Here I go again. Sounds a little lonely to me. Only the fish can see what I’m holding underwater. The rest of me, poof, another round of thin air.

By the way, don’t forget the Richmond Hill Public Library’s Poet’s Gala Saturday afternoon, the 19th, from 1 pm to 4 pm. Hope to see you there.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.


Barry Dempster, twice nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, is the author of fourteen poetry collections, two novels, The Ascension of Jesse Rapture and The Outside World, two volumes of short stories and a children’s book. His collection The Burning Alphabet won the Canadian Authors’ Association Chalmers Award for Poetry in 2005. In 2010, he was a finalist for the Ontario Premiers Award for Excellence in the Arts. He is also Acquisitions Editor for Brick Books.

For more information about Invisible Dogs please visit the Bricks Books website.

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