Festus, having forgot,
woke, citizen in the City of himself.
Festus was nothing,
was shell, animalcule, glacial drift.
Ages on ages roll’d over Festus.
Festus uncurl’d to peninsula.
Festus Freshwater River sang the length of the city.
Festus wolfpack howl’d.
These lines, musically bombastic and epic in scope, begin “Invocation,” the first poem in John Wall Barger’s ambitious new collection, The Book of Festus, an intricate and often puzzling poetic sequence that departs from the shorter, self-contained lyrics that mostly populated Barger’s earlier collections, Pain-Proof Men and Hummingbird. The Book of Festus’s fifty-five poems frenetically circle around the titular character and his day-long journey through Halifax on a search for his lost (or possibly stolen) bicycle. Barger has previously tried his hand at the longer sequence (the eponymous “Hummingbird,” for example), but the intricate allusiveness and unique diction on display in The Book of Festus are unprecedented in the poet’s oeuvre. The allusiveness of Barger’s book is epitomized by its title, which is an allusion to the book-length epic poem Festus by the Victorian English poet John Philip Bailey, whose admirers once included Tennyson and Longfellow, but whose reputation has long since lapsed into obscurity. By subsuming Bailey’s title into his own, Barger slyly comments on every writer’s hope for posterity, while also acknowledging the unforeseeable cultural processes that leave most writers unread beyond their time.
Readers looking for a straightforward narrative in The Book of Festus will be disappointed; the collection is undeniably Joycean. Just as Bloom in Ulysses simultaneously wanders the Dublin of his mind and the Dublin of June 16, 1904, Festus simultaneously traverses the Halifax of his memories — the “city of himself” — and the contemporary Halifax of his misplaced bike. It becomes apparent that Festus has an acute understanding of Nova Scotia’s past — a past where First Nations’ culture was overwritten by European colonialism, and where Black Canadian communities suffered terrible discrimination. Accordingly, as Festus moves through Halifax he can’t help but hear the city speaking to him of the change it has undergone, of its forgotten people and places. Every block that Festus walks seems a hall of glass, and whether the panes are mirrors or windows is anyone’s guess. In other words, the city is Festus and Festus is the city — “My bone & flesh are memory,” Festus wearily exclaims — and the resulting poems are a surreal series of personal-historical collages, deft renderings of one man’s connection to the place he has always lived—a place concealing origins, both public and personal. Take, for example, “The Covered Way” in its entirety:
Freshwater River was buried
here at Green Street
once a bridge
a bridge traversed
this parking lot.
was erected, 1966.
Yet no plaque, tourist centre, or clairvoyant
to recall the decree—
Citadel opened to assault from Covered Way;
heavily treed ravine to be razed … (Gen. E. Massey, 1777)
Red river, wine river, my heart was once,
from which all water flowed
into which Haligonians leapt, tall hats flying off
Here, past and present intermingle in Festus’s appraisal of a Sobeys parking lot. Festus’s trans-temporal associations suggest the flicker of memories acquired through both real-life experience and the internalization of historical texts. The stuttering syntax (“once a bridge // a bridge traversed;” “Red river, wine river”) and unusual lineation serve to enact Festus’s confused and often disturbed mind, but never at the cost of the poem’s music — apparent in the recurring “w” and “a” sounds of the poems first and penultimate couplets. The final image, of Haligonians (citizens of Halifax) throwing themselves off the no-longer existing bridge is strikingly memorable: their fall into a river that was long ago buried under the city — ironically, (given its name) in order to mitigate sewage — is both epiphanic and haunting. Are their leaps suicidal or celebratory? The poem doesn’t condescend to clarify, though in my reading, the deliberate pressure placed on the word “ecstatically” as the only word in the line suggests the adverb leans towards the ironic. It’s also worth noting Barger’s lexical adroitness: the repetition of the noun “river” in the near-compound phrases “Red river, wine river” blends the adjectives together suggesting a red wine river, an association that further emphasizes the lines’ sanguine metaphor.
Beyond the psychological acuity, lexical mutability, and interest in epic narrative, Festus’s journey is also Joycean in the sense that the poems, like the chapters of Ulysses, cleverly cycle through different formal and aesthetic techniques, playfully formatted with various levels of unorthodox indentation and punctuation. One poem, “Open Curtains,” is even reminiscent of the “Circe” section of Ulysses, formatted as a play. In the poem, Festus enters a movie theatre in a mall, only to see his past love for a woman named Sally projected onscreen:
In the front row Girl & Festus
find two seats.
full house deep under the street,
colon of the Mall.
In you, O Festus, we have taken refuge!
In you, Festus, the horns of righteousness shall be honked!
To you, Festus, we have given our hands!
From you, Festus, we expect a gentle answer!
With you we shall be delivered from the hunter’s hand!
From woe, O Festus, in this dread City
That crawls at the door of the sea,
From the rattle of plasma TVs, noise of the whip!
Festus (to audience):
Shhhhhhhhh… The movie’s starting!
a Girl on back,
she in the blue
he gave her…
The manic voices Barger marshals throughout the collection — perhaps all varying ventriloquisms of Festus himself — and the constant switching between registers, imbues the book with a strange and fascinating energy. Note how the archaic diction and use of exclamation marks in the “Audience” lines above are quickly deflated by the mention of “plasma” TVs and Festus’s colloquial interjection, “Shhhhhhhh… The movie’s starting!”
If Joyce’s Ulysses serves as one of the primary progenitors for The Book of Festus, then the poems in John Berryman’s Dream Songs, and their tortured protagonist, Henry, seem to be another salient influence on Barger’s collection (it’s no coincidence that Festus is tormented by a character called the “Bone Ghost,” recalling Henry’s hostile “friend,” Mr. Bones). In Berryman’s poems it’s often a challenge to discern who is speaking: the utterances from Henry, Mr. Bones, and other unnamed speakers overlap. Their parentheses-riddled voices mingle and at points suddenly diverge; none can be said to be entirely distinct from another. Similarly, Barger’s speakers share a rich patois, wherein bracketed asides, words from other languages, out-dated expressions, and contemporary references all jostle for stanza-space. For a poem with an obvious connection to the aesthetics of Berryman’s Dream Songs, see the poignant “Festus Maximus, To Himself,” which gives the reader greater insight into Festus’s troubled childhood. The poem — seventeen lines long, and comprised of six fragmented stanzas that could easily be compressed into three — formally echoes the eighteen-line caudate sonnets that comprise the Dream Songs:
A sky unlike. Afternoon creeps.
Where’d the Bone Ghost go?
(Likely pedalling my bike out of Hellifax!)
A pigeon sotto voce, a park bench,
—I, dragging on a perfecto,
have had to learn the simplest things
last. Slow in school, in love,
to find questions.
Parapraxis, the mouth
concrete. Once, on this spot, a boy struck me
so hard the street spun. I crawled
bawling through a cabal of schoolgirls.
of women & boys
The city stretches from my feet.
The poem is a marvel of compression and carefully placed detail. Heavily enjambed lines and unexpected punctuation enact the poem’s paratactic logic, while never completely sacrificing sense or the poem’s emotional stakes (evoked in the third and fourth stanzas). The poem’s title also signals a debt to Charles Olson’s Maximus poems, confirming Barger’s magpie eye, his ability to convincingly pluck the shiniest bits from the canon to further enrich his own poems. “Festus Maximus, To Himself” does what this exuberant and complexly crafted collection does so well overall, mingling memory, place, and selfhood across the map of an ever-changing city. Festus memorably asserts while sitting in the dark, watching his past play out across the movie theatre’s screen: “Memory is a man on fire, / blurred by the warp of heat. / Memory is the fire itself / and the man and his final thoughts.”