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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Joe Barr

 I've talked about this before. How many lovely urban natural spaces along waterways are in actual fact reclaimed abandoned -and in many cases contaminated - former industrial areas.

This is true of the lovely area west of the mouth of the Trent River, in today's Trenton. An open parkland and playing fields and a library with the country's best view inhabit an area I believe to have been at or near the site of the former city dump.

 Morning and It's Summer, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, and the novel Splinter in the Heart take us to such unlovely places in the Trenton of Al Purdy's youth.

These scenes inhabit the autobiographical work and they trickle like run-off into some fine poetry.

These early industrial towns cast off people like they disposed of scrap metal and domestic rubbish. No nanny state to bind folks of limited capacity into sheltered workshops. Wolfensberger's thoughts on  the'dignity of risk' would not be thought up for many decades. Still, the simple life of Joe Barr "the town idiot", resident of the town dump, was painted with a touch of nobility by Purdy, who described a meeting between young Patrick Cameron, hero of the autobiographical Splinter in the Heart. Patrick speculates on the kitchen middens of ancient Sumer and Babylon, in a passage which echoes his musings in the Ameliasburgh poetry.

Quinte West's beautiful library

Patrick rescues Joe Barr from his tormentors (for once) and in return is taken to Joe's hovel in the midst of the dump, and given the gift of a ruined teddy bear and a glimpse into the intelligence and humanity of this cast-off human. A beautiful passage. Recommend it.

"In a grey town of seven-week days
during an eternal childhood
where I was so miserable sometimes
at being me that I roamed lonely
over the reeking town garbage dump
unable to talk to anyone...

Old Joe went there too
happy as a young dog
pushing the garbage with his stick
grinning like a split orange
telling himself stories all day
the doors of his prison opening
into rooms he couldn't remember..."

From 'Joe Barr', first published in Wild Grape Wine (1976), reprinted in Beyond Remembering (2000),
page 177

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