Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Lucid in the City of Himself: "The Book of Festus" by John Wall Barger

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Lucid in the City of Himself: "The Book of Festus" by John Wall Barger

It is rare that you come across a book of poetry, or any book for that matter, that you read in one sitting, from cover to cover, and then immediately begin to read again. Even more rare is when it’s a text that you barely understood in the first place. Yet, this is what happened when I first cracked the pages of The Book of Festus by poet John Wall Barger (Palimpsest Press, 2015). Reading Festus on the subway was my first mistake. Although the commute is an hour and a half one-way, it wasn’t nearly long enough for such a collection (110 pages total). In fact, in order to finish it I had to sit in the station before getting on the bus to go home because I knew if I marked my page and tried to continue later, I’d lose the immediacy and fervency of the experience.
 
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Book of Festus is its narrative (and I use that term loosely). In third person narration, the reader journeys with Festus in a non-traditional almost hallucinatory storyline, which feels somewhat like selectively reading the drug-induced parts of Alice in Wonderland while the film Momento plays in the background. Only imagine it’s set in both historic and present day Halifax. Festus is a character without memory, flashing back and forth between present day and historical events in “The city of himself,” never quite understanding who he is or where he fits into the present situation. He appears to be on a quest for understanding, and guided by his memory, delves into the inevitable process of modernization and industrialization that paved over the natural landscape of old Halifax. Interwoven in the attempts to understand how the Halifax of General Eyre Massey became the Halifax of Park Lane Mall and Sobeys are struggles to understand a past relationship with a female character, someone with a direct link to Festus’ past, but a connection that is now detached.
 
The Book of Festus begins with “Invocation,” a four-page long poem that introduces the reader to the multi-layered Festus who “having forgot/woke, citizen in the City of himself,” where he “was nothing, was shell, animalcule, glacial shift.” The poem describes a person who is timeless, representative of generations upon generations:
 
Ages on ages roll’d over Festus.
Festus uncurl’d to peninsula.
Festus Freshwater River sang the length of City.
Festus wolfpack howl’d.
General Festus Eyre Massey
wolf’d Mi’kmaq. Pioneer Festus
buried his own hatchet-heart,
construct’d the Angus Festus Macdonald Bridge,
curs’d himself & then forgot.
 

It’s the forgetting that seems key here; throughout generations Festus (a.k.a. the collective “we”) exists in a world where he is the taker, the consumer, the destroyer, yet inevitably has no memory of any of it. Here, it seems Barger is pointing to our own tendency to repeat historical follies and injustices over and over again. Whether against nature, animal or human, we essentially remain blind to our own complicity, finding ourselves in a present-day catastrophe and wondering how it came to be. Festus is no exception, and he seems to represent the inevitable path of destruction that follows human existence, particularly since the birth of European colonialism:
 
Festus cover’d Freshwater River with concrete
& raz’d the Kissing Bridge that forded it.
And then forgot.
Festus butcher’d & ate every cow of every colonist,
crow’d the eyes of human dead,
pour’d a checkerboard of concrete streets
over the clamourous gods
& then forgot,
& then forgot,
waking, citizen in the City of Halifax,
City of himself.
 
The message truly hits home with the final line of that stanza; Festus is waking up in a place he created wondering how that place came to be. Although no simple answers or overt messages are conveyed throughout the remainder of the book, the three sections titled “The Bridge,” “The Axe,” and “The Cow” do present several key characters and images that continually appear, conveying, somewhat distortedly, a message to both Festus and the reader alike. Barger demonstrates an ability to place imagery and subtle cues throughout the narrative in such a sporadic way that it nearly comes off as chaotic, but ultimately each recurring appearance strengthens the book’s narrative.
 
The first section of The Book of Festus, “The Bridge,” initiates Festus’ quest, where he wakes suddenly without remembering who he is or why he exists in this place and time, and his initial search seems to be for his childhood bicycle, a key symbol to his origin story. As it turns out, that bicycle has either been lost or stolen by the female character from his past, a similarly ‘lost’ love interest known only as “Sally.” The poems in “The Bridge” center around Festus’ childhood where the protagonist is propelled through a myriad of characters and images in an unconscious half-sleep, where each new object or individual he comes across presents a new clue into his own identity and origin. Yet, even writing this now, explaining the narrative as if it’s some linear story line to a movie, does disservice to the genius of Barger’s narrative techniques. He wouldn’t dare be as overt in his story-telling; instead Festus is given to the reader like a series of flashes behind the eye-lid, mimicking the sensation of constantly waking up from a dream with a sudden spark of consciousness.
 
There are times Barger’s narrative borders on the absurd, yet his images have precise meanings hidden beneath their rhapsodic surfaces. Take for example, Eric the Red Cat, who
 
feeds from a blue bowl on deck of an ex-navy
gravy boat—CSS Acadia,
 
now stripped bare for tourists—
& regards F. on the wharf.
 
In that same poem, after questioning how things came to be while appearing to be in conversation with Eric the Red Cat, Festus professes aloud:
 
Mayst I ne’er haf domynyon
 
o’er the fysches fowles beestes
ore anye cryature crepyng on th’ earthe,
 
This profession is immediately cut short with a reprimand from the cat:
 
When Eric pads down the plank
& purrs,
 
“Oh you will you will despite yourself.”
 
Here, Barger has ended the poem with a hint at Festus’ complicity in the corruption and perversion of the city he grew up in. On a larger scale, Barger seems to point to humankind’s inability to not demolish everything we touch, the exploitation inherent in our so-called survival.
 

Eric the Red Cat and his prophetic speech soon becomes a conduit to an even more bizarre and cryptic messenger known simply as “The Deaf Man.” After Eric leads Festus to the man’s feet, Festus soon finds himself welcomed in for tea and awing at a mural painted by the Deaf Man that can only be described as a sinister representation of the history of Halifax, dubbed “Hell-ifax,” an orgy of religious and historical imagery that represents European colonization and the destruction and cultural genocide that followed. The Deaf Man then points Festus in a more personal direction, showing him a photograph of a child with the elusive yellow bicycle he’s been searching to find. Soon after, Festus begins doodling on a newspaper and wakes in the morning to find that newspaper has morphed into a map of old Halifax before the days of shopping malls and concrete. This leads Festus to a Berryman-like character known as “Mr. Bone Ghost” who appears heavily in the second section, “The Axe.” Throughout several poems, Mr. Bone Ghost speaks in riddles that are laced with proverbial messages, and shows Festus images of his childhood on a “TV hand,” telling him that “When God intends to lay waste a City he inspires violence in a wicked citizen.” When, naively, Festus questions which citizen he is referring to, Mr. Bone Ghost laughs, “You’re all I see.”
 

One can’t help but be reminded here of Graham Greene’s short story, Under the Garden, which also features a man returning to his childhood home with mysterious unreconciled memories. The protagonist in Greene’s story finds himself in an underground world occupied solely by a woman known as Maria who is unable to speak, and a man known as Javitt who speaks in proverbial riddles filled with expletives that suggest a profound, deeper meaning. At the end of the story, the narrator wakes up and readers are lead to believe it may have all been a dream. Luckily, Barger doesn’t cheapen The Book of Festus in this way. Festus’ Javitt equivalent leads him through poems in the second and third sections of the book that are filled with structures representative of modern industrial Halifax and suburban commercialization, a place with “1000 rhapsodic shoppers in its bowels” where “the Bone Ghost drowns on electrostatic fields, narratives” and a “brood of bargain hunters warm their furs by the combusting apparition.”
 

By the time it reaches its conclusion, The Book of Festus is set in modern times, following in the same vein as the eleven page poem in section II titled “Open Curtains,” quite possibly the most powerful, mind-bending poem in Barger’s ouvre. There Festus and Sally appear in a movie theatre inside Park Lane Mall, being yelled at by an audience who seems to simultaneously blame Festus for the “woe…in this dread city,” and depend on him for an escape or solution. Meanwhile, throughout the back and forth dialogue with the audience, the movie screen displays vivid memories of Festus and Sally and what appears to be a childhood love-turned marriage-turned divorce. It is this multi-layered existential conflict amidst reality-bending narration that best illustrates Barger’s ability to write a book of poems that’s both deeply felt and skillfully absurd at the same time. Not only does Festus have to come to terms with the city he once knew and the city he has come home to in a cloud of amnesia, but he also has to reconcile the failed relationship that started and presumably ended there as well. Barger sows this story together in such a way that meaning is fluid—where Festus could be the poet himself, a political or historical figure reconciling the fate of a city, or even the collective “unconsciousness” of society as I suggested earlier. Either way, it is clear that Festus is both the sacrifice and the solution, as is suggested in the poem “Festus, The Movie:”
 

Festus, riveted
to seat, from a popcorn bag a vine
winds his larynx, from speakers & projector
ivy luxuriance blossoms
to gloriole, a crown about his head
 

Crucifixion allusions aside, there are no solutions rendered, no conclusions met. Barger does, however, finish the book with Festus approaching something close to enlightenment. The final poem ties the themes of past and present, birth and destruction, Festus and Halifax, and Festus and Sally together in “Showdown.”
 

And Festus sees trembling under the mute sky
the ancient crayfish flipp’d, exoskeleton ajar
Sees the technology of the past & of the City itself expos’d
grinding like innards of a pocket watch
Sees Bastard Time the capsiz’d dragon & holds its gaze
Sees Sally’s legs sticking out from under the crayfish
in her striped stockings & ruby slippers…
Sees past & future the same dense forest of sleeping bodies
in the purple night under the hunchback moon
a blur of bodies like propellers of a helicopter…
Festus weeping sees…the orgy of gods in the forest of time
Festus sees Festus the City a god of many bodies
Festus sees each & every god & from the viewpoint of each god
sees himself…
Festus, amnesiac, pourer of concrete, floored,
remembers.
Remembers!
 

All, all.
 

What is most remarkable about The Book of Festus is how superior it is to Barger’s previous collections. What makes it stand out is the wildness of the poet’s strictly controlled craft. On the surface, that may appear to be a contradiction, but imagine a Jackson Pollock painting. Imagine Pollock flailing his brush wildly above a canvas, spraying it with content and colours that form no concrete image or tell no recognizable story, yet when finished, every single splatter of paint feels deliberate, precise, and skillfully controlled. This is what John Wall Barger has done with his third collection. The Book of Festus brings readers into a world filled with chaotic characters and dream-like images, yet every single line is expertly crafted and vividly clear, every poem load bearing and essential.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.