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Douglas Barbour Feature

Christine Stewart

From the Journals of Reading Early Barbour, Summer, 2009

so to enter into it, tenuous but explicit, from here to there and back again…

 — Robert Creeley

Edmonton, July 11, 2009

Today the city is empty and the light is flat. Beyond its edges, something like prairie stretches south to Lethbridge. This same land also turns around and heads north toward boreal forests. I am just back from the West coast and I am feeling landlocked. But I’m reading Barbour’s shore lines (Turnstone Press 1979). It reminds me of the coast. It reminds me of being reminded of shore lines.

Last week I found Denise Levertov’s Sorrow Dance: Poems (1967) at the freestore on Denman Island, B.C. Reading her in the outhouse at my sister’s, I can hear the chickens shuffle in the dust outside. Their feet shift with the rolling chuckle in their throats. I am sitting beside an old and weathered copy of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. A web swings from the corner of a curled page. The web moves back and forth in the breeze from the open door. The chickens outside are mostly black bantams. The range of sounds they make doesn’t ever come to a “cluck” and Sorrow Dance contains poems about Levertov’s late sister and the Vietnam War. This political work strained (and ended, in a way) Levertov’s relationship with Robert Duncan. They disagreed about the relationship of poetry to politics and the private and public responsibilities of the poet. Here, by the web, and the chickens, Sorrow Dance brings Barbour’s shore lines to mind. Not because of the content—Barbour’s work here is bent to a specific moment of observation, to a present matter of things: a beach, a wave, and writing. Barbour doesn’t move towards the political the way Levertov does. But there is something similar about the way time and space move through the work. There is a similar rhythm of listening. As if rhythms of time and space also comprise the material of the quotidian poem and world. As if time and space are things unto themselves, things placed (and flung) that frame and pace our days and desires. The way the hot air here swings dust, spacing itself between the chickens. There is a linguistic physics in Barbour’s shore lines, a music. Something of Robert Creeley too. Explicit. Listening. And then (I notice) there is Mathew Arnold. And Creeley, again. A certain music and its refrain.

Doug Barbour’s “walking long beach” 1979

and     the water
moves      ceaseless
unchanging       changing
its far
off roar  (25)

Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” 1867

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Robert Creeley’s “Dover Beach (Again)” 2007

The waves keep at it,
Arnold’s Aegean Sophocles heard,
The swell and ebb,
The cresting and falling under,

each one particular and the same—
Each day a reminder, each sun in its world, each face,
each word something one hears
or someone once heard.

In “Of Being Numerous” George Oppen writes, “There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves” (9).

And these things are poems—also things. And words. And poets. Levertov, Barbour, Creeley, Arnold. Things also, we live among.
Oppen’s Of Being Numerous is in the bathroom in Edmonton, in the magazine rack, furling.

Occurrence, a part
Of an infinite series, (9)

I left Levertov at my sister’s. Arnold’s “Dover Beach” is on the shelf in the old Norton Anthology of Poetry. Creeley’s “Dover Beach (Again)” is on the wall at work. Barbour’s shore lines, right here. A series of occurrences. Poems. Wave-like. Waves. Poem-like. Not substitutions but relationships. To see these things is to know ourselves.


& the  poem
of walking long beach
must build the beach
here/   hear
the words say
the beach / speaks… (Barbour 28)

To hear them is also to know ourselves there and in the here we inhabit. As if to inhabit the world is to write it (word by word) into existence, building a beach here, hearing “the words say the beach.” It speaks there and in this afternoon here where I am surrounded by land: infinite occurrences. And here (on Long Beach, in Edmonton) that occurrence is to be heard and to hear the world. It is crucial, to hear here—its cadence(s), speaking, and again, draw back and fling, speaking, the page curling:

The poem is an event: a motion / a process.


& wind to
the shore,  always
there,   intensity
shifts,   presence

                 a tide
beach’s contour  
continuous    renewal
(wave : motion / white)
wash : process)
moves in / moves out

& the poem
of walking all this
beach    could include the poem
of walking. . . (Barbour 25)

The process of hearing the beach speaking, of walking a poem. A wave motion and process. Remains moving.

And so moving the poet greets the present and is the precise site of its production. It is that walking on this beach that writes the poem and the poem that writes that wave / beach / in beats—its cadence (heard) brings forth a seeing, the image, another form that gives meaning.


even the flat white splats
of seagull shit
assume formal
distinction… (Barbour 24)

The counted cadence of the line and word and time—back again:


          to one side        continual  white

wash/sound of sea
          hangs in air / eternal
          rush of foam
         … (waits)    to crash     again      (waits)
          to crash     again… (Barbour 21)

“The waves keep at it… the swell and ebb… . each one particular and the same” (Creeley)

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow… (Arnold)

[A]ccumulative / particles of the poem / adhere:    particles of beach/ (Barbour 21)

Arnold’s waves and their cadence bring “eternal note of sadness in.” The waves bring the existential sorrow and secular loneliness of modernity. The waves draw back and fling—their grating repetition is what dashes human meaning—not what makes it.

Creeley’s words from the waves of Arnold’s speak to language and its inexorable connection to the human condition, as we are: alone and collective. Language words us into the human, drives the past ceaselessly into the present, the I into the other and back again, listening. “Each word something one hears / Or someone once heard.”

In Barbour’s waves (from Arnold’s waves and from Long Beach) the waves are waves waking into the poet’s walking—which is the poem. Eternal notes, necessarily. Not sentiment— but “accumulative” (21), generative, particulate and definitely waves (actual and musical) as they bring in and are drawn out to make the poem: that which is (already) “part of the whole” (21)—which is a world. This is an acoustic, musical, Spinozist world-view. The noun is the verb, heard. And through the poem and the poet listening the world comes into a particular moment of relation (which is being): wave on wave, on land: word on word. Listening is being also. And so motion. Moving to the sounds and cadences of the world is to being what to hear is to here. And these are parts of a participating whole: language and the listener (listening to and too). And this poem is a horizontal plane, equation of articulating and swaying particulars (objects and their conditions), rising and falling: clamshell   open   occasional    pieces   sea   kelp  [poet] stretcht   [chicken] and  poem  the    rhythmic spaces   [web]  in    be   tween.  These things. That we are. And that we are not.  That we know. And that we do not know.  And some things that we might find in our “socks” “weeks later” once we get home [to Edmonton] (21): sound and time—that is, the medium that is language which is a sonics of things: words and their sounding movements. What George Bowering calls “a map of the mind moving.”

Giorgio Agamben reading Walter Benjamin writes “Ideas—which like stars, “shine only in the night of nature” (The Open: man and animal 81).

Here, in “walking long beach” ideas move, ringing and “nature” is the mind of the poem and the map the poet records, counting. Counting a measured sea of words, counting, a measured physics in an exact music. This is a composition and, simultaneously, immersion that folds the image into the gesture that is language, as such. That is, the poet exhibits the gesture and opens it to what Agamben calls “our own being-in-a-medium, our own ethical and political dimension” (“Notes of Gesture” Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience 6). And this listening is the private and public responsibility of the poet.

Mind and waves [legs too] in syncopation. Hearing in lilt and swing—a kind of swimming.

from Song 5 “of the sea” from Songbook (1973):

… wash / in the ear the beach… we sing in / rhythm, as / to swim in” (Barbour np).


Last winter, early December 2008, Fred Wah and Doug Barbour are sitting in the front of Doug’s little red car driving South West down Saskatchewn Drive. I’m in the back. Doug’s worried about the CO2 levels, and the melting ice shelf so he turns the car off at every red light. The car stops, rocks forward, back and then starts again—we sway in unison to one side, back again. Fred and Doug are talking jazz. It’s about -25 outside and not much warmer inside the car.  They don’t care. They are both moving in the car, with the car: “intensity / shifts,  presence / remains,” remembering (listen) to some long clear note. Later Fred reads at the University in the room that overlooks the mostly frozen river. He plays an old swing tune to go with his piece. Does a little dance—swings, grinning. Somewhere in the back, Doug grins too. Nods his head. Counts. Rhythm, as to listen in and moving in   time    again to.

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