Gary Barwin. No TV for Woodpeckers.

Gary Barwin. No TV for Woodpeckers. Buckrider Books. Wolsak & Wynn. 2017. Review published in the Winter 2018 issue of Freefall magazine.

Gary Barwin is included in most people’s understanding of the list of avant garde and/or surrealist authors of Canadian poetry. This book will not disappoint people who lean that way. The poem that sets up this volume, ‘Not’, makes one wonder about the title. It seems to suggest a resistance to a certain mind set. Barwin then launches into the first section of the book, which has several poems listing the names of groups of creatures (The Birds…, The Fish…, The Butterflies…, The Mammals…, The Snakes of Hamilton, Ontario).no-tv-for-woodpeckers.jpg.size.custom.crop.440x650

We are for the chuck-will’s-widow

The horned grebe

The fulvous whistling-duck

For looking directly into the semi-palmated plover

                     (The Birds of Hamilton, Ontario

His poems manage to educate the reader to what we had no idea we were missing about living in Hamilton, Ontario, as I did for three years. There are creatures on the lists he creates that may or may not still live there, some whose names we have never heard of before. He plays with those lists linguistically, the verbs in his poems made from parts of their names and methods of describing them, the names collecting amidst a realization that most people living in Hamilton do not know them. In that way, he offers the reader surprizes.

I need to confess that I am not among those who are wholly converted to surreal poetry (some would read this as my lack of updating). The truth is that I approach surreal poetry from what might be regarded as an open but conservative perspective. For many surrealists, that means that I am the reviewing equivalent of a fly in the jam. However, my intent is to interpret the alchemy of surrealist and avant guarde language manipulations, as people open to any form of language exploration would do.

Johnathon Ball introduces the anthology of surrealists called ‘Why Poetry Sucks’ (Insomniac Press, 2014) by saying in his introduction that people are correct in their complaints about avant garde poetry. “Either there’s nothing human in it (no humour, no emotions, just theory-speak) or it’s all too human, an idiot pleasure, one not worthy of being called ‘poetry’.” He argues this type of poetry takes de-familiarization as “the basic gesture of poetry — poetry takes language and pushes it past the limits of its quotidian use, to estrange us from language and its transparent, communicative capacity (i.e., how we typically encounter language in our everyday lives)”.

Those who don’t get surrealist work, he explains, just don’t get the joke. Well, even in the case of master manipulators like Barwin, I think I usually do get the joke. The problem remains that I just don’t always find the joke reason enough to get the poem. In other words, I find this collection uneven in the quality of its message. Some poems, like ‘Needleminer’, cause me to think of Barwin as a poet Shakespeare, creatively inventing words like “endosquirrel” or “distalwolf”. Other times, even to my ear, he completely misses.

On the one hand he often makes absurdity appealing, inviting, and relevant. In fact, Barwin makes me see nature in a way that is both totally unexpected and vibrates within me, to the core.

I planned to park in my usual place

Gary Barwin
 photo by Cathie Coward/ Hamilton Spectator

but a whale became available

convenient and close


its great left eye looked at me

its great right


inside was safety and krill

the moon a distant wave


Each time I read the poem ‘Marlinspike Chanty’ I glean a different or increased meaning from it. On the other hand, I need to read it several times to gather my impressions.

I really appreciate the fun in ‘Travelling in Peru without My Glasses’, and I am rather in awe of his ability to create a poem that is like a fractured fairytale based on ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in ‘Axe’. The ‘Man and Tree’ offers surreal experiences we cannot help making associations with, realization slowly dawning in relationship to the characters in the poem.

Man and tree you may bird and nest

You may mother and father


Two worlds, man and tree

Beautiful tree, our dead dad

                    (Man and Tree)

I am mesmerized by the contrasts and correlations he sets up between symbols or individual letters and words in the poem ‘Anus Porcupine Eyebrow’:

O                     mouth

V                     bird

~                      field

                    (Anus Porcupine Eyebrow)

Yet, I have to admit to the fact that because the poem spans four pages it does stretch the limits of my desire to explore. While I really enjoy the jest and verbal pyrotechnics in ‘Hilarious Video Online’, I am frustrated by the pleasant but so-uninspiring revelation in the verbal play of ‘Gaspar’. So my take on this book is that it is enjoyable and insightful while remaining uneven.

On a final note, focusing on the book’s design, I was frustrated when it came to reading the end notes in this book, simply because they were end notes. If they had introduced the book rather than ending it, I think Barwin’s explanation for the impetus of some of these poems would have helped me to enjoy them more.

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