Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Gary Barwin and Lillian Nećakov, DUCK EATS YEAST, QUACKS, EXPLODES; MAN LOSES EYE: A Poem



we fly but have not yet arrived
a suspended moment
the possible one
of the provinces of truth
it’s delightful

what you say, you say as a duck
you can say nothing outside of this
let us now consider the other eye

Gary Barwin and Lillian Nećakov’s collaborative DUCK EATS YEAST, QUACKS, EXPLODES; MAN LOSES EYE: A Poem (Toronto ON: Guernica Editions, 2023), is a project that takes its prompt from a story that ran through American newspapers across January, 1910, about Des Moines, Iowa’s Silas Perkins, who was said to have lost the sight in one eye after his prize-winning duck, Rhadamanthus (named for the wise demigod king of Crete from Greek mythology), ate a plate of yeast and exploded (a check on Snopes suggests that this story might be apocryphal). Through one hundred and forty-four sequentially-numbered poem-sections, Hamilton writer, poet and composer Barwin and Toronto poet and editor Nećakov, friends who first began to interact through a small group of self-declared surrealist poets in Toronto during the 1980s, playfully pull and extend their narrative thread from that singular headline. They compose a collaborative riff of quick movement and verbal gymnastics, akin to a variation on Fred Wah’s suggestion of “drunken tai chi,” allowing their individual writing skills to articulate what is so clearly a gleefully-extended wordplay through and against dark humour, narrative expectation and strains of surrealism. This poem is very much a playful exploration via a kind of ongoingness, working to see where the poem might go next and how far, seemingly less concerned with where it might end up. “something happened in Des Moines involving a duck,” part 11 writes, “some yeast, a man / his eye // it’s still happening [.]” The poem exists in the present, allowing the story of a century past remain as a kind of fixed point. Or, as they write, further on:


we are always laughing with
or for the dead
the burden livewires must bear

the body begins to multiply
a bag of laugh explosions
illuminate the wound

I’m fascinated with how Barwin has seemingly been working a multitude of simultaneous directions over the past few years, from producing award-nominated novels to visual poetry, musical composition, poetry collections [see my review of his latest here] and a slew of collaborative efforts, a thread in his work that has really ramped up over the past half-decade, including his full-length collaboration with Gregory Betts, The Fabulous Op (Ireland: Beir Bua Press, 2022) [see my review of such here] and a second full-length collaboration with Tom Prime, Bird Arsonist (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2022) [see my review of such here], as well as multiple chapbook-length collaborations with writers such as Amanda Earl and myself. How does he manage to keep track? jwcurry once offered that bpNichol was a great writer not purely based on what he accomplished with his work, but that he was willing to fail, which provided such further possibilities in his writing, and this kind of fearlessness is something that Barwin’s work employs as well. For her part, I’m less aware of Nećakov’s collaborative works [see my review of her latest collection here], although I know she’s worked a number of smaller, self-contained works for years, and a quick Google search provides that a further book-length collaboration she did with Scott Ferry and Lauren Scharhag, titled Midnight Glossolalia, appears later this year with Meat For Tea Press.

And, of course, the final poem in the collection does acknowledge their extended play on ongoingness, an echo of Robert Kroetsch’s poetics of perpetual delay, perhaps, or even the “say yes” structure of improv, offering: “to being and begin and begin / in the middle of a sentence / after the final yes / of yesness [.]” A few poems prior, number one hundred and thirty-seven, they write:

my grandfather’s town so small
if you said its name
as you walked in
you’d have walked out
before you’d finished

Mark Twain said
those who are inclined to worry
have the widest selection in history

if the rich could hire
other people to die for them
the poor could make
a wonderful living

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