I picked up this collection by Halifax-based poet John Wall Barger after reading a couple of his poems in a recent issue of The Fiddlehead. I was intrigued by the title of this book, but I also had a feeling that it would evoke some strong memories of my seven years living in Halifax.
Barger does not disappoint. Pain-Proof Men captures wonderful snippets of contemporary Halifax in all its salty, hardscrabble glory, even as it explores the poet’s own harsh inner world. Take, for example, The Fiddlehead poem that is also in the collection, “Slow Exposure” (revised somewhat from the journal’s version for the book, or vice versa): “Under the surgical lights of the Superstore/ a punk pushes past/ with the innocence & orange whiskers/ of a carrot. You worry for him/ until you note his bowling shoes/ & pulp fiction grin …” There is something entirely Haligonian about the images that Barger paints in this poem. While I would argue that a carrot’s whiskers are actually green, not orange, every other description in this piece is bang on in making a moment of tense self-realization at a Halifax supermarket come alive on the page.
Pain-Proof Men takes its title from the Arabic word fakir, a term for a Muslim Sufi ascetic or, more commonly, those carnival performers who can endure great acts of physical pain such as walking on hot coals or sleeping on a bed of nails. The notion of a pain-proof man is one that holds many of the poems in this collection together. We have men as stoics; we have men as protectors; we have men as Hollywood monsters. We have fathers who come to their sons bearing gifts that are the spoils of violence: from the poem “A Gift”: “He has mentioned a gift/ & now places a fossil/ he found in Eastern Europe/ beside my coffee/ & watches me./ It is a bone,/ a circular, horned ghost./ It’s from Auschwitz, he explains./ … It was, I see now,/ part of a child’s spine.” Mostly we have men who endure a kind of interior torture or loneliness that is somehow brought into clarity by the outside world.
As much as I appreciated these overlapping themes, I have to admit that I held a soft spot for the more Halifax-centric poems. My favourite in the collection is “The Ugliest Building in Town”. Barger writes: “This building, the ugliest in Halifax,/ makes me wonder/ if beauty exists anywhere.” I know this building. At least, I think I do. If it’s the one I’m thinking of, it sits on the corner of Robie St and Quinpool Rd and truly is the ugliest structure in creation. My friends and I used to call it “the Rice Krispie Square.” Barger describes it with deft precision, and imagines its destruction with joyous zest.