Articles & Reviews

Spiritual Dilemma: Review of Barry Dempster's Positions to Pray In

Positions to Pray In
Barry Dempster
Montreal: Guernica Editions, 1989

By Stephen Morrissey
Poetry Canada Review, vol. 11, no. 2, summer 1990

Barry Dempster's Positions To Pray In is one of the few recent books of Canadian poetry that seriously deals with the question of our spiritual dilemma. As one reads Dempster's book it is evident that he has a coherent vision of life. His work is fundamentally moral and religious in the best sense of these words.

Dempster's book is divided into three sections. Section one, "Dreams of Desertion," concerns man's fallen state. In "Clouds, Shales," Dempster writes of "The world going up in smoke./ God Ôan abandoned pair of eyes." It is this bleak psychological state in which most of us exist: Dempster writes,

... I will walk out of
the earth, yet another Adam
healed for a season or two,
and on cold, cold nights
I will be listening to
the frozen petals of violets
as they exhale tiny cries of pain.

The Garden myth, which refers to the fallen state of mankind, is an excellent place for Dempster to begin his discussion of spirituality. For William Blake this is the world of experience, of our inability to perceive life with the mystic's non-judgmental vision. There are several references to the Garden in Positions To Pray In: in "The Garden of Disillusionment" Dempster writes,

Disillusioned, damn. The sun
is growing senile. Bare
streets like balding heads. Struggling
to rise, steadying feet,
he brushes the leaves from his eyes.
The patio sinking, poor light.

Of course, we all experience momentary happiness, but upon further reflection most people will also admit to suffering from feelings of emptiness; everyday life seems to lack meaning. Our lives seem to be preoccupied with trivial activities; we rarely transcend the dismal state of what is. Dempster reinforces this perception of modern life with references to "Images of a lost/ world"; he writes of "growing older, more my separate selves," and "I plant my broken self/ in the garden"; finally, he asks, "Why this sudden painful self?"

The second section of Positions To Pray In, "Perfect Moments," returns the reader to the lost happiness of Eden. Here we find happiness and contentment in small things; in "Everyday Visions" Dempster writes,

Yesterday, a crimson leaf
breezed against the bedroom window,
and you, startled flicker
of a candle flame . . . "Look,
so cold, it wants inside."

If only life were made up of "perfect moments," of romantic love, the joy of good books, and neighbours chatting over a backyard fence. Per-haps this is our contemporary middle-class ver-sion of Eden. Inevitably, this innocence is lost; however, without man's fall from grace the psychological struggle towards individuation and meaning would not be possible.

It is in the third and final section of Positions To Pray In that Dempster will lose some of his readers, for he now writes from a Christian perspective. To find meaning and happiness one must have faith in God: he writes, "Mary, what is man if not/the shadow of his faith?" Later he writes,

... I walk in a midnight
garden, choking on the smell
of flowers. I dream
of a wooden cross, wake up.
It seems Jesus
is an empty place in my mind.
Faith more substantial than myself

And in "When Isabelle Walks" Dempster presents someone who seems to have the very religious faith he is still struggling to achieve:

Isabelle walks up George Street, morning, homeward, weaving in and out the sloppy lines of sleepy men. She dreams an angel on her shoulder, thus believes in it.

Positions To Pray In is an impressive book. The writing is uniformly excellent and is obviously the product of many hours of meditation, writ-ing, and editing. What I appreciate most in Dempster's work is his vision of life and the struggle to find meaning and order in a world that has lost its belief in God. What is the meaning of our existence when we have reduced life to what can be perceived by our dulled senses and an exaggerated emphasis on materialism? Dempster's book is an important contribution to this discussion in Canadian poetry.

Copyright © 2007 The author