To borrow from Robert Frost, something there is in Hymn that doesn’t love a full stop. The majority of the poems in this book are written in a headlong, breathless manner, with nary a period until the end of the last line. The approach sometimes works quite well, as in the Whitmanesque opening poem, “Aide-Mémoire,” an ecstatic inventory of the speaker’s past lovers. But when one encounters it in poem after poem, the technique becomes tedious and one poem blurs into another.
Barton’s rambling “Free-Association” poems (that actually serves as the title for one piece), written in arbitrarily long lines or a kind of lightly punctuated prose, while displaying occasional feats of linguistic gymnastics, allow for a whole lot of slack and padding. Any book that features the word “azure” more than once – and “diaphanous” and “pellucid,” ever – really should have undergone further edits.
It’s difficult to say whether the poems not written in this manner stand out because they’re better or merely because they’re different. One of the highlights of the collection, however, is “Pastiche,” Barton’s gay take on Atwood: “You slip in / side of me, a key in // side a lock / – a piano // key, a / locked jaw.” This poem and a couple of others, most notably “Warhol,” which makes a telling reference to its own “kleptomaniac run-on sentence,” display a commodity otherwise in short supply in this book: humour. Sometimes attempts at jokes fall flat, but as a rule, more levity would have provided relief from the fits of vatic afflatus that predominate. Hymn is a long book and, like most poetry collections over 80 pages, would have been much better had it been more trim.