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The Burning Alphabet

by Barry Dempster

The Burning Alphabet is Brick Books editor Barry Dempster’s 10th poetry collection. In it, he renews his exploration of the dominant themes of his recent Selected Poems (sex, death, and the struggle of the individual within and against family and community), but with a shade more intensity, perhaps because he’s now in his fifties and many close to him have died.

Most of Dempster’s poems are loosely constructed and have conversational rhythms. This approach allows Dempster room to range between moods, registers, and dictions. A poem might start off with ho-hum tone, but then hammer the reader with a sudden turn of phrase, full rhyme, powerful image, or burst of syntactic bravura.

The best poems – and there are several – are staggering in their mixture of candour and cunning craft. Dempster claims to “cherish the explicit” – a risky gambit for a poet, but it pays dividends by consistently eschewing the sentimental. Dempster will also often defuse the tension of his dramas with a well-timed joke.

At his best, Dempster, an admirer of D.H. Lawrence, reminds me of that other Ontarian disciple of Lawrence, Al Purdy, in his plain-spoken playfulness, understated technique, and often brutal honesty. Unfortunately, Dempster also shares with Lawrence and Purdy some of their flaws, especially a tendency toward prolixity. The Burning Alphabet is a long book, by poetry standards, and would have a stronger impact had it been condensed.

The more self-consciously artful or intellectual stretches tend to work less well. One section, “Sick Days,” is swamped with no fewer than 20 epigraphs from other writers. Another suite borrows quotes from a target-shooting website, using them as metaphors for life. This is clever stuff, but though the quotes may have served as inspiration for the poems, when preserved in the book, they distract from the poetry itself.

Perhaps Dempster has difficulty sorting out his best writing. If this is the case, reading the weaker poems here is a small price to pay for the best work in this book.