Four Poems by Barry Dempster

New Work


First sip has a way of loosening
knots, those clusters of nerves that nag
like bow ties, cutting breath into fidgets.
After a good swallow, my legs
shed some texture – hushaby.
Knuckles losing their useless
“k’s,” luscious soft. From here
on in, it’s gulp claiming me
as one great gush. Won’t be long before
elbows are slush. The evening floats
as if a camera has been attached
to a rambunctious little wave.
The bottle cradled in my arms
like a Burmese cat. My brain
well on its way to a saint’s
gibberish bush of praise. I surrender
all my stevedore will, my Calvinist
settle. Be drunk, Baudelaire slurred,
a poet crowning.



What did he expect? The word labyrinth
had always seemed mystical,
miles of mystery bundled small.
This particular labyrinth, just circles
on the Anglican lawn like a child’s
pencil drawing of how to get to God.
The idea was to walk, paper-trace,
thinking of a dilemma he’d like to solve,
listen for that inner voice,
the murmur of Tarot cards being shuffled,
or the click of Runes as one fate falls
against another. Watching as his friends
headed out, shuffled the short blades
of grass, their very presence a trample.
Then following, eyes cast down,
dodging the toadstools and muck, thinning
himself as narrow as the path. What about
my broken heart?, condensing weeks
of pain into one pathetic refrain. The closest
he came to an answer was when he almost
tripped on a sharp turn, muttered Shit
and bumbled on. But then he glanced up –
a moment’s giddy hope (will it soon
be over?) – and saw two friends
bearing down on him, separate paths, of course,
but so close they brushed against each other,
smidgens of their faith sticking to him,
energies mingled. As if he were
invisible, their sureness entered him.
Before he could feel fully formed again,
a third friend suddenly streamed beside him,
a parallel grace taking them to the next corner,
sharing the wholeness of space.
Arriving in the centre, he listened for
the slaps of his friends’ footsteps
as they set off on the next spin,
returning to the unsolved and unsaid.



Your resolve to leave
had grasshopper’s legs
and catapulted you
several body lengths
in one jump.
In a matter of days,
you were far away,
snappily sailing through
heartbreak and disgrace
as if they were truck stops
on the Trans Canada.
Too busy leaping
to feel anything but high.

I’m more the spider type,
elaborate little mandala.
Watch me turn a monk’s cell
into bitter arithmetic.
Loving me was cramped,
everything cornered,
even a swoon reduced
to a dangle.
Ah, how I miss
the stuck of you,
the twisting.

Find myself
a bit of fly,
the housebound kind
with wings the colour
of aluminum sinks.
Love that got me buzz.
So hungry I could eat
my weight in webs.



We talk about depression,
that black spill with dog’s teeth-
and-breath, that sinkhole in our brains
where the run-off festers.
How could it happen to us,
cheery beings – you with your
apple-bite smile, me with my childish
fingers, enough pink between us
to make a mild Martian sky?
We don’t realize that colour
is heartless. Mark Rothko
orange, for example, a 1951 print
hanging in my therapist’s office,
blocks of suicidal thoughts.
Who knew misery could grow
on trees, fat planets of negativity,
the spiked citrusy smell of sugar
being stirred with bile. I stare
into that orange until my therapist
is glowing, until the kleenex in my fist
turns the colour of a clenched peach.
Can’t wait to come home and show you
the branch from which I’ll hang,
the bruise around my blue face
a flagrant shade of purple.


Barry Dempster

Barry Dempster, twice short-listed for the Governor General's Award, is the author of sixteen books. He has won the Canadian Authors' Association Chalmers Award for Poetry and in 2010 was a finalist for the Ontario Premier's Award for Excellence in the Arts.