The history of love poetry is the history of poetry itself. One of the oldest known fragments of written verse consists of a few mushy lines of Sumerian cuneiform; it begins, "Bridegroom, dear to my heart, Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet." It is a priestess talking to her beloved king. She continues, "You have captivated me, let me stand trembling before you; Bridegroom, I would be taken to thy bedchamber." It's pretty racy stuff coming from the same people who invented such practical things as the wheel, irrigation and shoes. But it reveals a basic human constant: All of us are spellbound to some degree by love.
- Love Outlandish, by Barry Dempster, Brick Books, 112 pages, $19
In fact, it could be argued that love has been the principal subject matter of poetry since we began writing it, and from Solomon to Sappho, from Shakespeare to Sexton, many poets have made it their specialty. To that long list we may now add Barry Dempster.
Love Outlandish, Dempster's 10th collection of poetry, contains (let me count the ways) exactly 60 poems, and each one aspires to approach the well-charted subject of love from a new direction. In order to accomplish this feat, there are at least 4,000 years' worth of sap, sentiment and cliché to navigate around. It's a very tall order.
The collection starts with a simple poem, also called Love Outlandish, about the love of mere things. How do we find room for real romantic love in our lives when they're already cluttered with affections for miniature cacti, wine bottles and Elvis memorabilia? We just do, Dempster tell us. Love has no cap or quota and can always be added to "... like one/ of those street poles in Paris/ where possibility is many layers thick."
If Dempster's aim was to reinvent the love poem, I'd say he set himself an impossible task
The second poem, called Devotion, substantially ups the emotional ante of the book. It chronicles the death of Dempster's mother by training its focus on the actions of his father: his race to her deathbed, the coming to terms with her lifelessness, the pointlessness of finally watching TV by oneself after all these years, those moments when the poet would "... hear him talking/ above the din, telling her how it felt/ to be skinned alive." The poem deals with Dempster's theme on two levels: a man's love for his wife, and a son's love for his father.
Not every poem in the book is so heavy. Love has many faces, and a lot of them are cheerful and bright. Unfortunately, not all of these poems are successful. I'd Like to Lick Your Thumb is meant to be a delicious little lark, but instead it's corny and a little too slight, but in the poem Spanish Espadrilles, Dempster succeeds with sumptuous gusto. He shows how travel can illuminate love. When in a strange or foreign place, the world seems more alive, more interesting, and more (of course!) romantic. Okay, so it's an excuse for Dempster to unleash a torrent of lush tropical images - the Alhambra walls, a cluster of almonds, frail blossoms bursting into oranges and limes - but he makes it work partly by keeping things on the level of memory and fantasy. The poem isn't so much set in a sunny paradise as it recalls one and yearns for another. It remembers that love is often more about desire than fulfilment.
If Dempster's aim was to reinvent the love poem, I'd say he set himself an impossible task, but he has written a good deal of excellent poetry on that much beloved subject, and this no mere collection of sentimental valentines - in these poems, love is ecstatic, brutal, angry, lustful, comical, nostalgic, grief-stricken - and Dempster has brought all his skills and experience and creative tenacity to bear on what ought to be a very popular book.
Paul Vermeersch is a poet and editor. His fourth collection of poems will be published in 2010 .