Review by Jenna Butler.
Continuations, by canadian poet Douglas Barbour and Sheila E. Murphy, is a collection that defies easy description. Begun six years ago in 2000, what is now Continuations had its start as a collaborative process that became, over time, an integral part of both writers daily lives. It is the visible process, in addition to the stunning and remarkably cohesive finished product, that makes this collection one to savour. We are sure that you would like to meet another Canadian poet, such as David O’Meara.
Barbour and Murphy come from different cities (Barbour from Edmonton, Alberta and Murphy from Phoenix, Arizona) and backgrounds influenced by different climates and cultures. Barbour is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Alberta. He is a well-known sound poet, having performed extensively with poet Steven Scobie as part of the ensemble Re:Sounding, and has performed his sound poetry around the world to critical acclaim. In addition to his work in sound poetry, he is the author of a number of collections of poetry and literary criticism. Murphy co-founded and has coordinated the Scottsdale Center for the Arts Poetry Series with Beverly Carver for a number of years. She is the author of a number of excellent poetry collections, among these Proof of Silhouettes and Concentricity. Both poets are deeply involved in the literary communities in their home cities. It is all the more remarkable that given the distance that separates them, they should have connected in such a way as to create a body of work that so masterfully balances each individual poets prowess with the creation of a third, wholly new, speaking voice.
Although Continuations is written in a fixed format of six-line stanzas, that is effectively where the physical structure ends. The language in the poems is allowed to bubble over, to take on an effervescent, joyous quality of its own. It is the give-and-take of the collaborative exchange that is the focus of this collection, as well as the spontaneous elation resulting from the creation of moments such as the one below the two stanzas that coincidentally close the book:
counted / counter tenored notes rising as the sun the other birds heard far beyond those opening fields fracturing splayed shadow groves no birds this morning fields and wooded places tended without rising beyond open shadows fractured by counter groves perceived far from the sun (100)
Being familiar with the work of both poets, and indeed the poets themselves, I initially found it difficult to prevent myself from trying to discern the hand of one or the other poet in each particular stanza. As I read further through the collection, however, I realized that the distinction had become a near impossible one to make. A third voice had arisen in the work, one beyond Barbour’s and Murphy’s; one that arose solely from the skilled interchange at work during the collaborative process.
It is testament, I believe, to the skill of both writers that the third voice stays strong and true throughout the entire collection. It is a wry and deeply human voice, spurred from subject to subject by Barbour and Murphy’s dynamic exchange of ideas, yet touching with unerring clarity on weighty subjects such as art and memory:
in circles, chemistry infracts the leisure swathes of symmetry among the cogs draped with enactment held in memory's less sharp blades pressing temperatures does memory stay frozen or burn up when the engines sly vanes turn and turn thrown gears gut imagery as the grind grows toward mirrored sound refracted (9)
The risk of attempting a cohesive collection through collaborative effort is more than justified in both the visible process of the work and its startling finished product. The physical structure of the poetry, in addition to Barbour and Murphy’s strict adherence to a daily two-person writing practice, provides all the boundaries the book needs. Supported by these guidelines, Continuations sings. To read this work is to witness the exchange in motion “ a constellation of ideas that celebrates and heightens each individual author’s prowess:
always the double voice the double vision side by side on the clifftop asked to choose why do so don't divide take and take all take off (40)
Jenna Butler is an educator and poet who makes her home in Edmonton. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including CBC’s Alberta Anthology, and has been widely published in journals, anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and abroad. She is the founding editor of Rubicon Press.