Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, multimedia artist, and the author of 20 books of poetry and fiction as well as books for kids. His most recent books are the short fiction collection, I, Dr Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457 (Anvil) and the poetry collections, Moon Baboon Canoe (Mansfield), and The Wild and Unfathomable Always (Xexoxial). Yiddish for Pirates, a novel, will appear in April 2016 from Random House Canada and a new poetry collection in 2017 from Wolsak & Wynn. A PhD in music, Barwin was 2014-2015 Writer-in-Residence at Western University and the Toronto Public Library Young Voices eWrite-in-residence in 2013. He has taught creative writing at a number of colleges and universities and currently at Mohawk College. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario. GaryBarwin.com
Shopping for Deer
I went shopping for deer
there were no deer
the shopping cart became the deer
I brought it home
and turned off the lights
the seasons changed
I lived on earth
sometimes the bright sun shone
I became old
when I die, I will remember the deer
I will remember its wheels and antlers
I will remember its flesh and lightning
its womb of silver bones
from The Porcupinity of the Stars
Let’s start with this poem in its broad strokes — in a review earlier I said that “Barwin's poetry expresses a near-religious faith in poetry’s transcendence, its ability to forge meaning rather than simply convert meaning into money.” You said that you disagree with this, or at least don’t fully agree — I’d like you to comment on my comment, but let’s get there through the poem.
I feel that when it comes to forging meaning, “it's complicated.” It’s not that I don't believe that poetry or “the poetry experience” can't construct meaning — and a meaning that is somewhat sometimes able to elude being co-opted by capital — but I believe it's a question of what kind of meaning and where it is located. For me, the issue is connected to my interest in non-realistic forms of representation, of moving outside of the consensual forms of reality (including grammatical reality), those that are sold to us by mainstream culture and master discourse. In this poem, I think I could make an argument for the shopping cart as an image that resonates with this. By not consenting to a normative notion of reality and representation, or at least by problematizing it, I think the poem attempts to open up the implicit assumptions about the reality we are “sold.”
It’s also true that I am intrigued by poetry’s ability to create an aura of meaning, a husk of numinosity, resonant meaning-ripples moving out from the signifier and/or signifying empty or ambiguous centre. To get all Basho about this: “plop” = centre, “water-sound” = ripples. The writer and reader are somehow involved in the concepts of water, leap, and frog. But the relationships are destabilized, not quite what they seem. I do think it “begs” these questions.
This puts me in mind of a favourite few lines of Wordsworth’s from when I was an adolescent (and yes, I had friends…really…)
Oh! grant me Heaven a heart at ease
That I may never cease to find
Even in appearances like these
Enough to nourish and to stir my mind.
— “A whirl-blast from behind the hill”
I think about how the “appearances,” in addition to the “natural” world and human culture, are also the process and results of signification, of metaphorization. Of enlanguaging.
Here’s how I like to look at “Shopping for Deer”: the first stanza forges a metaphor (shopping cart as deer) but the real metaphor, the one that gets overlooked (by people who read the poem as about homelessness, or hunting, which are the two common ways I see it interpreted) is this: the shopping-cart deer fusion is the vehicle in a metaphor where the tenor is metaphor itself. The poem then becomes an extended metaphor for how central metaphor is to our lives and our understanding of our lives, and of course is our only way to somehow comprehend death.
I do really like how you look at it — the tenor being the metaphor. The message is the medium.
This chimes with what I’ve said above about consensual ways of conceiving of the world, I think. We see the world metaphorically. Is it that perception is a metaphor for itself or that our world is always metaphor for itself?
I also see the deer/shopping cart metaphor as engaging with an exploration of the relation of the technological or human-made and the construction of nature and the natural. What ideas are embedded in the concept of the pastoral and how does it relate to the modern world? In this sense, the poem explores ecopoetic concerns. I think that the poem asks if shopping can be considered as hunting and gathering. Are shoppers (i.e. the modern person) both hunter-gatherers and consumers of the spoils of hunter-gatherers?
And as for death, I hear it is inevitable, but I’m waiting until it’s all over before I make my final determination. To click on that ultimate shopping cart and “check out.” But I think the fact that we have the possibility of metaphor, the possibility of both engaging in and feeling a kind of poiesis is how we can try to, if not understand, then at least reckon with our world of life and death and the experiences in between. To have it to “both nourish and stir our mind.”
Can you explain a bit about how you came to write this poem? I understand it was inspired by an image by Banksy?
First of all, as I walked about the city (Hamilton, Ontario), I kept discovering deer. Deer in the woods. Deer on the road and on the lawn bowling field, deer in the park, late at night as I walked through the mist with my dog. And I’d find shopping carts nestled in alleyways, nuzzling telephone poles. Shopping carts tipped into rivers. Carts that had strayed far from their grocery store.
I had been thinking about how we respond both emotionally and intellectually to human-made materials versus those of the “natural” world. How the modern pastoral might include a toaster, a TV, sheep and a cellphone. And perhaps beyond the pastoral, how an ecopoetics would include wire clothes hangers, a gas giant, an echidna, and tractors. I’d been following the blog Next Nature whose philosophy states that, “Where technology and nature are traditionally seen as opposed, they now appear to merge or even trade places,” and considering the notion of biomimicry and how we populate our image banks and metaphor hordes with a kind of conceptual pareidolia or technological/nature synaesthesia. In other words, we tend to biomorphize. On the Next Nature blog, I came across this image by Bansky which was a resonant conflation of shopping cart with prey.
The conflation of shopping cart with prey seemed apt. Of course there is the visual rhyme: the rectangular box-form and four wheels of the cart resembles the torso and legs of the imagined prey. (It also conjures for me a gurney and a coffin in a procession.) The carts often seem to roam and graze across the urban grasslands. But, unlike Banksy, I was interested in the cart/prey image in the “developed” world. We are hunter-gathers as we prowl the city for product, pulled by the tracks and scents of our commodity prey, picking and choosing, both hunting and gathering. And there is the implicit movement of capital, of commodification, of marketplace in the transaction. The shopping cart is the “check-out” symbol on websites.
And what does the image of the deer mean in our culture? I’m thinking back to the heads of deer on medieval castle walls, on the modern hunter’s wall. The deer carried on a stick back from the hunt, or on the roof of an SUV. The deer as spoil. The ballads about the aristocracy’s control of deer. As a symbol of wealth and power. I think of, for example, a song that I love, “Geordie” where the eponymous geordie “stole sixteen of the King's wild deer,” — the “wild” deer “belong” to the king — and so the geordie is sentenced to death for hunting them.
But there’s also deer-headed people in cave drawings who I think are shamanic. And so the deer is a portal, a gateway between worlds. As I said, between the human and the non-human (whether animal, commodity, object) but also between the worlds of life and death, the immanent and the transcendent, the phenomenal and the noumenal, the material and the spiritual. But as I see the glinting silver of the shopping cart, its strange yet familiar shape, I see these dualities in the image of the shopping cart also. I feel that it’s not me doing the Shklovskian ostranenie but the world is making me strange to myself.
I assume you wrote the poem operating with the image more surrealistically, without trying to develop it metaphorically. Can you respond to my reading here by way of explaining how you see yourself working in poetry to forge or even resist meaning?
So, in terms of your question about the actual writing of the poem, it’s true I don’t begin with an explicit concept of what an image or trope means, but rather feel its heft and location in multidimensional meaningspace, culturespace, or languagespace. That is, how it feels to me as material — what it suggests in terms of development as an image, what might go with it, or where it might go formally. “Meaning” per se isn’t something that I consider except, as you suggested, to resist it colonizing the poem with big-booted obviousness.
Putting my ear to the verbal track usually means that there will be some “meaning” coming down the line in some form, though I won’t know what it is until it arrives. My usual line is that “the writing knows more than I do.” This means that I try to trust the language to take shape and self-organize, the way interstellar dust gradually forms planets, comets, and other space objects. I feel like I am tapping into language and culture this way and the result will be much more complex, subtle, and interesting than if I tried to impose my likely more monolithic and simplistic ideas and meanings.
Of course, it some way it necessarily will reflect the shape of my looking, the way I see or am able to conceive of language and culture as I work with the material until I’ve shaped it into—or discovered within it—a satisfying aesthetic shape. (By the way, I do hope you are enjoying the ongoing unfolding and salmagundi braiding of my mixed and mashed metaphors. Perhaps they’re reflective of the heterophony of my thinking on this. Or just lazy bloody noise.)
Your earlier draft of the ending stanza read this way:
When I die, I will remember the deer.
I will remember its wheels and antlers.
I will remember its silver bones that are
a womb for flesh and lightning.
Then, you moved to this:
When I die, I will remember the deer.
I will remember its wheels and antlers.
I will remember its womb of silver bones.
Can you talk about how you (1) moved from one draft to the other, and then how you (2) combined elements of both drafts to produce your “final” version (the one in your book The Porcupinity of the Stars, which is reproduced above)?
I can’t quite remember the process, but looking at these various drafts, I can see how the last two lines of the original draft are more pedantic or at least less energetic (“its silver bones that are” is a much more passive construction). Also, “[i]ts silver bones” isn’t as interesting or surprising (for a shopping cart) whereas a “womb of silver bones” is much more so, both imagistically and sonorously.
The image relates the part of the cart meant for carrying to a womb, which brings in lots of interesting associations: the cart as a female body, as a mother figure, as (re)productive, as a source of birth. But yet this fecund place is metallic (silver) — maybe that glitter is magical or alchemical or symbolic — or maybe fruitless?
Likewise “bones.” Is that a fetal image or one of death? What is a “womb of bones”? It doesn’t sound good, quite like a death image, although of course we grow bones inside the womb and they’re not the dry rattling Wasteland bones of T.S. Eliot. I have a line in the same book describing fetuses as “soft-fisted swimmers.” What if they were silver-fisted?
I wonder how this “womb of silver bones” relates to shopping? To cultural icons? The poem refers to getting old and aging with is, of course, related to birth and the life cycle. Also, the w of womb and wheels plays nicely and there is an interplay with the o of womb and of bones, and those m’s in remember.
As you note, in the final draft, I put back the “flesh and lightning” which I liked for its contrast of images (this is also present in the womb and the silver bones line). All the way through the poem, there’s a contrast between the organic and the non-organic and how they relate. And also, between some kind of energy — “light” or “lightning” or life-force — and the corporeal (whether embodied in a deer or shopping cart) so I can imagine why I added the line back in.
I can also see why I chose to end with the “womb of silver bones” line — that’s a stronger image and one that ultimately embodies the energies of the poem. It also has a better rhythm and sound for ending the poem, I think.
Your earlier versions of the poem contained normative capitalization and punctuation, as the ending drafts show, and I’m wondering why you moved away from this?
There are two reasons. One is that in putting poems together in a book, I want to standardize how I handle punctuation and capitalization so that when there is a deviation it is meaningful, either in terms of semantic or musical notation. In this book, I opted for no capitalization (except for the first person “I”) and to reduce the use of punctuation wherever possible. Part of this is an impulse toward minimalism and concision: I try to use only the signs that are absolutely necessary and include nothing extraneous or non-essential. Part of the decision also stems from the thought that I am signaling that this is specialized linguistic space. It’s not expository text but a particular kind of textual music.
I also like the idea of the contrast between the energy of the poems (their “meaning” or their images) and the fact that they are made from such unpresupposing and plain materials. Even the choice of a very simple and inconspicuous unselfconscious typeface is part of that.
When you are making changes in editing like this, what are the typical things you are trying to do? In other words, what are your usual editing goals, other than the vague “improve the poem”?
As I mentioned, I do try to eliminate anything extraneous, to compress and compact. I try to remove any weak spots, any dips in energy, any “filler” or merely functional text. I look for opportunities to tweak the poem in order to create the most energy. This doesn’t mean that the poem is necessarily a blur of high-intensity gesticulation. Sometimes it means that it is a quiet yet steady flow, or perhaps, better, an ebb and flow. I look for places that I haven’t considered, places that aren’t doing anything particular and see if I can make something of them. I also see if by changing the order of lines or images, or by eliminating or modifying words, phrases, or images, or by reorganizing the shape or size of stanzas, and linebreaks, I can generate more textual electricity at whatever is the appropriate wattage for the particular poem.
When I teach, I tell my students to “trust the writing, it knows more than you.” I try to be guided by this. I really believe that by trying not to get in the way or impose one’s own expectations or desires, but rather by listening carefully, by looking for opportunities and possibilities and then by tinkering, tweaking, buffing and shining to attempt to bring out the innate music of the poem (whether punky, brash, luminous or shimmery), the inherent “genius” of the language and culture will make the text far richer than if you relied on your own conscious desires for it.
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The Porcupinity of the Stars