Recurring threads of isolation and invisibility weave through Barry Dempster’s fourteenth collection, Invisible Dogs. However, the loneliest of speakers is balanced with the transcendent images and diction that define Dempster’s books. Whether he’s examining the workings of the heart or studying the skies, his words open us to joy.
Descriptions of body parts are a staple of Dempster’s work. Wrists, throats, even unsexy bits like elbows are made fresh and intoxicating. Nearly all of his collections feature body parts that seem to exist independently, and Invisible Dogs digs deeply into the bodies of both self and other. The focussing of the poet’s gaze on often-overlooked parts helps us see them anew:
Just thinking about that blush
around her ankles or the half-moon twirl
where her bottom begins to translate into thigh
steadies him… (“She Said/He Said, 3/Second Skin”, 27)
As Dempster moves from loving descriptions of a shoulder or a knee to identity in the full person, he focusses on our existence within our own bodies. He is particularly attuned to our inherent doubleness: the bodies that encase us, and what lives free beyond their confines:
How simple to shrug off sluggishness
without a body. My armlessness
is airy, my lack of a spleen a pocket of breath… (“Walking Away, 4/”, 82)
This fascination with identity is sometimes self-referential—this may feel exclusionary to a reader unfamiliar with his previous work, but the referring back to himself as a poet reflects a doubleness in Dempster himself. In “The Pink Sock,” the speaker asks, “Remember the poem I wrote/about my wife’s closet?” (13). Many of Dempster’s readers will remember that poem from his 2005 Brick Books collection, The Burning Alphabet. The poem is called “Closet”, and in it the speaker fondles the clothing on his wife’s side, evoking memories of mothers, grandmothers, and love. His speaker refers to himself as “I” and asks the reader to remember a poem “I” wrote in another book, written—of course—by Barry Dempster. We’re not sure we need to know who is speaker and who is poet, the layers of identity are so thick and rich. And in a particularly Kroetschian twist, in “Skunk Hour,” the speaker instructs himself (or the poet?): “Now tell a story where you don’t even exist” (57).
The strongest moments of Invisible Dogs are a suite entitled “She Said/He Said” which chronicles the breakup of a relationship, and the long poem, “Walking Away.” These sections augment and bolster one another to stand with any of Dempster’s most stunning sequences (in particular: “Sick Days” from The Burning Alphabet, and “A Bestiary” in Love Outlandish). While the lovers in “She Said/He Said” find themselves fragmented and separated from one another in terms of their physical distance, the speaker in “Walking Away” is on a quest to walk away from himself. To separate himself from his bones, his heart, his emotions:
What I most want is to abandon
the silver key in its love-starved slot […]
Deep inside, my blood grows veins
and walks away. (“Walking Away, 9/”, 87)
“She Said/He Said” is a layered melding of points of view and explorations of the doubleness of identity. Body parts in Dempster can seemingly exist independently, and his speakers are able to walk away from themselves, yet these two people don’t seem able to exist without one another. The dichotomy is fascinating, and shows Dempster at his most complex:
Miles of missing her, those erratic white lines.
He keeps forgetting where he’s going – city,
corner store, centre of the universe. No wonder
arrival feels so temporary, like a borrowed bathroom key. (“She Said/He Said, 4/”, 28)
Barry Dempster’s books seem—at first read—to take in all there is in the world, but each subsequent reading focusses the reader to a sharper point, a familiar word made unfamiliar, a tiny moment, which may seem insignificant within the larger text, but when fully heard, rings as true and clear as wind chimes: “I want to reach out and stroke/the waitress’s face, her ice-bright loneliness” (“Intimacy,” 12). And, as in his other works, there is no shortage here of words Dempster has made fully his own. The speaker in “Are There Vipers in Bangkok?” asks of a friend, “untangle me” as though the speaker were a phone cord (10). In “God-Sized Ache,” the poet writes: “She’d take you/to her bed and darling you dreamy” (70). Seeing “darling” used as a verb startles the reader with the newness of a word often avoided as clichéd. Here, it’s as fresh as the day it was invented.
Minimalist in design, the cover art (a painting by Robert Cadotte) echoes the loneliness and isolation of some of Dempster’s speakers. The raised but nearly invisible title speaks to ghost-like presences within. The back cover tells the reader that the work is—in part—about the “difficult business of staying alive.” Yet despite the emphasis (perhaps over-emphasis) on that theme in its visual presentation, the book is full of life. Scattered among the speakers’ loneliness and feelings of invisibility are flashes of music, cherished bodies, and joy: qualities that identify Dempster’s books as uniquely his.
In “House and Home,” he writes, “Surely someone has to be there/when the dog of perfect light/finally leaps through open windows” (66.) The words make the empty house full with light as the speaker imagines the invisible dog inside, panting at the window to burst into the morning.
No matter how difficult or heartbreaking the subject matter, the poet’s joy in living that permeates all his work is what readers will take away and hold. With this new collection, Barry Dempster makes the invisible visible and chases the ghosts away with music and sunlight, while still yearning for the losses they represent.