- Why Should We Read and Study Bartlett?
- Literature & Analysis
- “This Bridge is No Bridge”
- “Among the Rows at 7 p.m.”
- Analysis of “This Bridge is No Bridge” and “Among the Rows at 7 p.m.”
- “A Basement Tale”
- Analysis of “A Basement Tale” and “Always”
- “The Afterlife of Trees”
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
Born in 1953 in St. Stephen, NB, Brian Bartlett is a poet, editor, and professor who spent his formative years in Fredericton. He apprenticed as a young poet with UNB’s McCord Hall writers, coming to the attention of Robert Gibbs, Fred Cogswell, and Alden Nowlan. Each saw in him the promise of a fine poet, an assessment based on Bartlett’s precocity (he was reading much beyond his years) and the quality of his early work. Bartlett did his graduate studies, and then spent his early career years, in Montreal, moving to Halifax in 1990 to teach at St. Mary’s University. His first two collections were the chapbooks Finches for the Wake (1971) and Brother’s Insomnia (1972), both published while he was an undergraduate at UNB. That early work revealed a resplendent imagination, earning him comparisons with the early work of Ontario poet James Reaney.
For a much more detailed biography of Bartlett, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
Bartlett has the rare ability to delight. He takes readers to places that are familiar, even common, but re-familiarizes those places with imagery that is fresh and unusual. In “Listening on the Back Steps,” the opening poem in The Afterlife of Trees, he even admits to startling himself with language:
You’re glad when one word from your keyboard
startles you. Some days even more than that
works out, then you stand back
to see what you’ve made:
a box for small births, wings fluttering
under the roof. So you’ve managed to offer
some grubs, and a home of waterproof wood. (3)
Readers leave his poems with renewed sight. His ways of achieving this are simple enough to see, but very difficult to execute, for, like Robert Gibbs, one of his literary mentors, he turns the everyday into the transcendent. To read him is to be revivified by language and to inhabit in a very rich tapestry of metaphor and imagery.
“This Bridge is No Bridge”
pollen sinks through air onto water,
the stream so shallow
submerged branches could be shadows
of hackmatack reflections
where patterns match patterns:
this bridge is no bridge
but a flowering over a flowing, hawkweed
and vetch sprawling where ruts
once filled with rain dead lichen
blows off the railing, which has
warped and warped again,
nail-holes pinched in
the forest loses in itself
eggs, excrement, antlers
though we found something
where trees are so close
we could climb two at a time:
among choked roots we found
the dry ball of bones
an owl had burped up,
many histories locked together
in this light we see
secondhand we see
the dozen dances
but not the dancers:
but water-strider shadows
flick and sway
across the white underwater sand
“Among the Rows at 7 p.m.”
I bury my hands in rhubarb leaves
and pull supper into a bowl.
“Created from clods”
rises to my tongue, words
rich enough to plant.
Kneeling in half light I touch
tangled roots and weeds,
worms multiplied by a spade,
bones of forgotten horses.
But the first fathers and mothers
digging the first gardens
rose from neither clods nor dust,
says the scrawl on the back
of a beetle on my wrist.
A brawny dark god
shot arrows into ash trees,
and our ancestors stepped out of the bark.
Analysis of “This Bridge is No Bridge” and “Among the Rows at 7 p.m.”
These early poems showcase Bartlett’s interests and his skills. The first poem, from his 1972 chapbook Brother’s Insomnia, has an almost magical quality to its opening, the line “pollen sinks through air onto water” ushering the reader into what is enchanting and mystical. From there, the poem catalogues the unexpected – the absorbed, the overlooked, the “many histories locked together” – the poet implying that the sum of those minutiae underscores attentiveness. The poem, then, calls attention to a fundamental disconnect between how we look and what we see. We see “the dozen dances / but not the dancers,” meaning that we see “secondhand,” like Plato’s cave dwellers, mistaking shadows for objects and basing our epistemology (our knowledge) on that false and limited sight. The poem, of course, does not say that explicitly, but it underlines attentiveness by modelling what attentiveness brings. It brings us into a new relationship with all that is around us – and, as the Tantramar poets also revealed, it provides entrances to new ways of understanding and interacting with the material world, seen and unseen.
“Among the Rows at 7 p.m.,” from Planet Harbor (1989), shows evidence of one such entrance. “Kneeling in half light” in his garden, the poem’s speaker “bur[ies] hands in rhubarb leaves,” touching “tangled roots and weeds, / worms multiplied by a spade, / bones of forgotten horses.” His is no ordinary garden, even if it is ordinary. It is, as he imagines and enlivens it, the first garden, a garden akin to the Garden of Eden where God created Adam from clods in the earth. Seeing, then, is not just done with the eyes (as in “This Bridge is No Bridge”) but also with the mind and hands, which, when attentive, are able to see and reach beyond the familiar. When attentive, mind and hands open themselves to a new authority: the authority of “the scrawl on the back / of a beetle on my wrist.”
Bartlett is describing a new entrance, not mounting a critique of the Judeo-Christian system. That entrance ushers the speaker into a new way of considering how life began: namely, that “[a] brawny dark god / shot arrows into ash trees, / and our ancestors stepped out of the bark.” The new knowledge is fresh, startling, and fantastic. Or is it? Is the Judeo-Christian explanation of our beginnings less fantastic than the clearly Mi’kmaq (First Nations) legend presented here? Bartlett is a poet who invites us to see anew, while also teaching us how to reach.
“A Basement Tale”
Twin brothers slept on thin cots near a furnace.
One heard a gruff lullaby, a fiery-hearted father;
the other, a smoky-fingered devil sharpening a blade.
With a click and a shudder, the furnace shut off.
For one boy, silence was a shoreless pool rippled
by a single minnow; for the other, a spider,
the tips of eight legs pressed against his face.
Rain slapped the basement windows and seeped in
through cracks - the sky at work feeding rhubarb
in the back yard; the slow growth of mould
over split stones in a Loyalist burial ground.
When the bathroom fan overhead whirred, one brother
heard a whale, fathoms deep, serenading its mate;
the other, an open-mouthed ghost trapped in an iceberg.
A click, a shudder – the droning began again.
The twins crawled from bed and slept in the furnace.
One walked into a tropical forest hung heavy with fruit,
shot through with birds spanning the spectrum;
one fell into an inferno that burned up his clothes
and glasses, his eyelashes and lips.
Each brother wrote a book – one with berry juice
and feathers, one with his finger stone-slashed.
Upstairs the next day they read each other’s words,
baffled. Baffled, curled in back-to-back chairs,
they knit their brows into mazes without threads.
That midnight, back on their hands and knees
they crawled down a trail toward each other’s dream
from the crossroads inside the blazing mouth.
Somewhere a wolf spider dances on a white rock
shaking in fervent frenzy. Somewhere a crippled auk
tries to fly, kildeer mate in a soccer field, a shrike
shoves a warbler onto a thorn. At this moment
a woman watches a meteor, a child counts the seconds
between lightning and thunder, old men share
ale made from malt, hops, and Scottish water.
Always, during your day and during your night
blackflies pierce human skin, rice-shoots
poke through earth, worms tunnel, a mother grazes
her infant’s cheek with love for the first time.
Always, heat at the heart of a crematorium is reaching
its peak, and a queen bee drops dead into mud. Pick
any moment: a couple on a mountain inhale air too thin
for their lungs, but feel inexplicably at home,
while a couple wandering through their garden
catch the smells of two dozen species, feel lifted
into an exotic place. Now, as I write, rain cascades
into a shrunken stream, foxes nip each other,
a rotting peach loses its last firmness. As you read,
a skirt falls to a bedroom floor, tires crush
a crawling animal, fingers press piano keys.
What happens during a pause in your talk
could keep you typing until your last breath. Always
a bullet leaves a gun, honey pours from a spoon.
Your brain is a mussel shell that will never hold the ocean.
Analysis of “A Basement Tale” and “Always”
Both these poems speak of immensity: the first of an immensity of the mind, and the second an immensity of that which exists beyond and outside the mind. The first poem is about twin brothers who share a basement room, as many brothers do. But that is where the similarities end, for each twin is in possession of an imagination that renders him completely unique – so unique, in fact, that one hardly understands the other, each “baffled. Baffled” by the narrative the other writes. Is this a poem about the brothers’ differences, then, or about their imaginations? Or it is, more generally, about imagination as an independent force in the universe? There is a good case to be made for the latter, especially given the third stanza of the first section of the poem.
That stanza describes an unstoppable force that powers all things organic. Unceasing, that force “seep[s] in / through cracks”; it erodes, reclaims, and, despite our efforts to suppress it, governs our world. The only thing equal to it is the mind that imagines it. The force of each brother’s resplendent imagination is therefore equal to the infinite processes of growth, life, seepage, absorption, erosion, and change that surround it. Logic can’t compute that force, physics can’t predict it, and engineering can’t corral it. Only its twin, the mind, can accompany it (potentially) into the places it goes and the forms it takes. And so that mind, like the force that governs all things, is beyond computation, prediction, and containment. Every mind, every imagination, is absolutely unique, an energy working by its own entropic laws of disorder, chaos, compulsion, individuation, and unknowability. Is it any wonder that one twin brother can’t know another?
The final achievement of “A Basement Tale” is that it enacts what it claims: across the divide of unknowability, each twin’s mind seeks out the other in restless curiosity, “crawl[ing] down a trail toward each other’s dream.” The compulsion is no different than “the sky at work feeding rhubarb / in the back yard.” The compulsion is just as unruly, sovereign, and indispensable to life. And, as such, it is just as magnificently catholic.
“Always” is even better than “A Basement Tale.” The idea of the poem is simple: that there is “always” more in the world than the mind can comprehend. The deployment of that idea in poetic form, however, is amplified by a series of beautiful images: “a wolf spider danc[ing] on a white rock,” a crippled auk, a child “count[ing] the seconds / between lightning and thunder.” The images cascade, one after another, seeming to get more striking as the poem proceeds: the “heat at the heart of a crematorium … reaching / its peak,” “a rotting peach los[ing] its last firmness,” “honey pour[ing] from a spoon.” Death, decay, nutriment, each a common thing, yet in the way Bartlett deploys them they become incandescent.
To appreciate the poem fully is to understand that it is a response to Emily Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain.” Here are the first two stanzas of Dickinson’s poem:
The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do. (41)
Dickinson’s poem suggests that mind (the brain) is superior to sky and sea because it can imagine and therefore “include”/“absorb” them. Bartlett, too, seems to be saying that in the first three poems above. In “Always,” however, he pulls back from a belief in the mind’s dominion, suggesting that the world (sky, earth, sea) is too immense to be known, let alone imagined. “What happens during a pause in your talk,” says the speaker, “could keep you typing until your last breath.” Not only do the poem’s cascading images suggest that, but so too does its form, the poem’s one endless stanza expanding infinitely as if trying to open itself to everything. The brain, then, is not superior, or even equal, to the sea. It is, rather, akin to “a mussel shell that will never hold the ocean.” Its capacity is measured in teaspoons against the capacities of sea and sky, for which no measure has yet been derived. (How many gallons are in the sea?)
Has Bartlett done an about-face in this poem, contradicting the earlier sense of mind (in “A Basement Tale”) as sovereign and unruly, or has he merely extended the range of what is imaginable in this poem? While it is unlikely that “A Basement Tale” and “Always” espouse divergent thought – both, after all, appear in the same collection, Granite Erratics (1997) – their differences are intriguing. It is not inconceivable that Bartlett took agency away from “mind,” putting a check on the ego in the process. He may also have been persuaded by the aptness of his final metaphor, the mussel shell, that metaphor convincing him that, like the mollusc that siphons food through it in order to live, so does the mind siphon and filter for its own survival. Such action, of course, is always parasitic, possible only in reliance on something greater.
Whatever the reason for the differences in these poems, “Always” stands out and apart. It is an art object of another sort, born of the same parentage and midwife, but a different kind of twin. It is best read slowly so that readers can linger and feast on its images.
“The Afterlife of Trees”(for Don McKay)
Neither sheep nor cows crisscross our lives as much.
Trees dangle apples and nuts for the hungry, throw
shade down for lovers, mark sites for the lost,
and first and last are
fuller and finer than any letter or number,
any 7 or T. Their fragmentary afterlife goes on
in a guitar’s body and a hockey stick, in the beaked faces
up a totem pole and the stake through a vampire’s heart,
in a fragrant cheeseboard, a Welsh love-spoon,
a sweat-stained axe handle, a giant green dragonfly
suspended from the ceiling with twine,
in the spellbinding shapechanging
behind a glass woodstove door ...
and in a table I sanded and finished this week.
– Finished? – Four grades of sandpaper drew out
alder’s “nature,” inimitable amoeba shapes,
waves, half moons, paw prints dissolving in mud.
What looks more beautiful after death? We sand
and sand, but under the stain, beyond our pottery
and books, our fallen hairs trapped in the varnish,
something remains like memories of a buck
rubbing its horns on bark. Soaked in
deeper than the grain goes: cries, whistles, hoots.
► Like many other poets in this curriculum (Robert Gibbs, the Tantramar poets, and Rose Després, to name the most obvious), Brian Bartlett is preoccupied with attentiveness. The recurrence of that preoccupation in English and French New Brunswick, as well as across generations and genders, suggests an absence of attentiveness, and the problems that that absence creates. Have we, indeed, lost our ability to see, to pause, to connect, and to reflect, as these writers imply? If so, what is the cause of that loss, and what are its effects? A comparative reading of “attentiveness” in Gibbs (“Conservation Procedures”), Després (“The tide defines…” and “At The Star-port”), Allan Cooper (“The Form,” “Desert Roses,” and “After Rain”), and Bartlett (“This Bridge is No Bridge” and “The Afterlife of Trees”) reveals how attentiveness offers renewal in a culture of dislocation and distraction. Attentiveness may even be the panacea that instruments of distraction (like technologies) claim to be.
► “The Afterlife of Trees” is dedicated to Don McKay, a Canadian poet who shares many of Bartlett’s interests in wilderness, bird watching, trekking, and poetic ecologies. Bartlett edited a collection of essays on McKay’s work (Don McKay: Essays on His Works. Toronto: Guernica, 2006) and has incorporated some of McKay’s thinking into his own creations. For a sense of the shared concerns of McKay and Bartlett, advanced students will want to read McKay’s important essay “Bailer Twin: Thoughts on Ravens, Home & Nature Poetry” in Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry & Wilderness (Wolfville, NS: Gaspereau, 2001. 11-33).
► Advanced readers of Canadian literature and/or poetry will also want to pursue the suggestion above and compare the early Bartlett with the early James Reaney, particularly The Red Heart (1949). Both employ a fantastical imagery to open the mind to exciting possibilities.
Strategy 1: Men from Trees (“Among the Rows at 7 p.m.”)
Bartlett’s mention of a god shooting arrows into ash trees to precipitate men stepping out of bark is a story of how Glooscap created the Wabanaki people. Why, in this setting, does the speaker ruminate on a creation story, and on this particular creation story? Have students compare this poem with “Glooscap and His Four Visitors” (see New Brunswick First Nations Story), where rather than bringing men out of ash trees, Glooscap turns a man into a cedar tree. From the students’ experience, what is the difference between these two trees? Why might have Glooscap created men from ash, but turned a man into a different kind of tree for punishment?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Note the relationship of specific elements of a particular text to elements of other texts
Strategy 2: Journaling (“A Basement Tale”)
This poem is an ideal introduction to discussing two of the benefits of literature: understanding and empathy. People see the world in their own ways, and it is therefore difficult to see through another’s eyes. Were a person, for example, to tell us that he is scared of the dark and of silence when we have no such fears, we might feel sympathy but have no real understanding. We can’t feel what it is to be scared in the way that he is scared. However, when we attentively read the metaphor “silence was a … spider, the tips of eight legs pressed against his face,” it is a visceral experience – we can feel and therefore share the sense of unease. Reading literature thus gives us windows to other ways of being, and also lessons in how to express ourselves so that others might comprehend. It can strengthen relationships as well as communication.
As a private journaling activity, suggest that students use this poem as inspiration to revisit a communication problem they’ve had in their lives. Can they think of a time when they tried to explain their perspective or feelings to another person, and failed to make that connection? Did the person look at them blankly, brush them off, or claim to understand when she/he clearly did not? In this exercise, students might try expressing themselves with more imaginative language, in particular metaphor. If their emotion was given form, what form would it take? There are a million different ways to experience happiness, sorrow, apprehension, guilt, and so on, but a line such as “an open-mouthed ghost trapped in an iceberg” is singular and powerful. Of course, we do not normally communicate in such florid language and so some students might scoff at the activity. If they do, they can exercise their animus by developing creative metaphors for how much they dislike the task.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Writing and Representing: Use writing and other ways of representing to explore, extend, and reflect on the basis for their feelings, values, and attitudes
Strategy 3: Extend the Poem (“Always”)
Challenge students to add three original images to the poem in appropriate places. What everyday but wondrous things deserve inclusion? What are the criteria for selecting those everyday things? Why might one thing be more wondrous than another? Students should attempt to replicate the tone and syntax of the poem so that their additions become part of the flow. To evaluate their success, they could show their new poem to a person who has never read the original, asking if the person can pick out their contribution.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Writing and Representing: Make critical choices of form, style, and content to address increasingly complex demands of different purposes and audiences
Strategy 4: Artistic Judgement (“A Basement Tale” and “Always”)
The critical analysis above states that “A Basement Tale” and “Always” are very good poems. Share this declaration with students in order to gauge their reactions to it: do they accept that judgement or are they resistant? If they accept the judgement, is their acceptance based on personal taste or on the expertise of the critic? If they reject the judgement, is their rejection based on personal taste or on a contrarian reaction to the idea of expert authority? People today seem less and less willing to cede the determination of what is valuable to authorities, just as they are unwilling to cede to the judgements of experts in other disciplines (climate scientists, nutritionists, public health officials, etc.). If everything is judged on the whimsy of taste, then do “real” masterpieces cease to exist, their value no more than any other piece of art? If so, how should curriculum authors, editors, and teachers select what to include? Should they include “the flavour of the month” and let aesthetic judgements, which percolate over time, lapse?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Examine others’ ideas and synthesize what is helpful to clarify and expand on their own understanding
Bartlett, Brian. The Afterlife of Trees. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2002.
---. Brother’s Insomnia. Fredericton, NB: The New Brunswick Chapbooks, 1972.
---. Finches for the Wake. Fredericton: Fiddlehead, 1971.
---. “For Sure the Kittiwake: Naming, Nature, and P.K. Page.” Canadian Literature 155 (Winter 1997): 91-111.
---. “Nights in Windsor Castle: Remembering Alden Nowlan.” Pottersfield Portfolio 18.1 (Fall 1997): 48-55.
---. Wanting the Day: Selected Poems. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2003.
Bushell, Kevin. “The Afterlife of Trees.” Rev. of The Afterlife of Trees, by Brian Bartlett. The Antigonish Review 137 (2004): 113-17.
Callanan, Mark. “A Loneliness which Must be Entered.” Rev. of Wanting the Day: Selected Poems, by Brian Bartlett. Books in Canada 33.6 (2004): 32.
Compton, Anne. “‘A Many-Veined Leaf’: Minutiae and Multiplicity in Brian Bartlett’s Poetry.” Studies in Canadian Literature 28.2 (2003): 131-52.
Dickinson, Emily. “The Brain.” Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. 1890. Ed. Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson. New York: Avenel Books, 1982.
Laird, Darrell. “An Artificial Paradise.” Rev. of Planet Harbour, by Brian Bartlett. Canadian Literature 128 (Spring 1991): 189-91.
McCallum, Kirstie. “Some of These Petals: A Review of Brian Bartlett’s The Watchmaker’s Table.” Rev. of The Watchmaker’s Table, by Brian Bartlett. Antigonish Review 156 (2009): 67-72.
Weston, Joanna M. Rev. of Wanting the Day: Selected Poems, by Brian Bartlett. The Danforth Review. March 2005. 22 July 2020
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Bartlett, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Brian Bartlett for allowing us to use the poems above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of these poems, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.
All poems above, except “Among the Rows at 7 p.m.,” appear in Brian Bartlett’s Wanting the Day: Selected Poems. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2003. “Among the Rows at 7 p.m.” appears in Bartlett’s Planet Harbor. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1989.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.