Michelle Desbarats is a widely appreciated, if arguably under-published, poet in Ottawa. Her first and only trade collection, Last Child to Come Inside, was published in 1998 by the Harbinger Poetry Series at the Carleton University Press. For years now her working biography for readings, magazines, and anthology appearances has declared some variation of the statement that she is presently working on a second manuscript/collection. We should only be so lucky to see new work from her available in print in the near future. In the meantime, I wanted to point to some of her material scattered in a small handful of other places from the last fifteen years or so.
Michelle’s work is quiet, unassuming, often hilarious, always controlled, and deeply thought-provoking. In addition, she is simply one of the nicest women you will have the chance to meet. Take this short poem, “If,” a favourite at her readings for one example:
If you don’t know what something
eats, try feeding it anything and
see if it starts to die.
“Peas” is another oft-cited favourite. During the two years I spent working at Octopus Books from 2009-2011, it was pasted in the window of the grocery store between Third and Second in a display of “Glebe Poets.” It always gave me a smile; the poem seemed somehow a bit too perversely dark to be in the window of a store that sold peas.
I like the idea of eating peas
after they’ve been used to kill someone
because it just goes without saying
it would take a lot of peas
to snuff someone,
finally after a constant
bombardment, they go crazy, die
and I like peas, sitting down
with a whole mound of them, hot
butter making them slippery.
Maybe someone could kill someone
with one pea shot hard and fast to
a crucial area on the neck
one deadly pea,
but I wouldn’t be interested in
getting to know that person,
they wouldn’t have a sense of the
abundance of things.
She had a chapbook published the same year as Last Child to Come Inside through above/ground press titled Eve’n Adam (1998).
later on she said that the little things counted
every little thing, they all mattered
he said no, they did not, he said that was a way
I don’t know if this is still in print, but the full-text of the chapbook is available in the anthology Groundswell: the best of above/ground press 1993-2003. This is a great anthology, and a great document of ten years of one of the most astonishingly active chapbook presses in Canada. rob can usually be counted on to have a few copies for sale at the Ottawa small press book fair (coming up on June 30). You could likely even send rob an email and he’d be sure to bring one along if you were interested.
In 1997, one year before Last Child to Come Inside, Michelle appeared in the anthology Speak! Six OmniGothic NeoFuturists (Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 1997). I found this book in a small shop in Halifax for $6.50. It seemed an appropriate book to find on the East Coast given that it was published by Broken Jaw (who, incidentally, also published Groundswell). The other “OmniGothic NeoFuturists” are Jim Larwill, Craig Carpenter, Sean Johnston, Rocco Paoletti, and Malcolm Todd. Carpenter’s forward identifies the NeoFuturists as simply a local writing group who “although intrigued by nomenclature . . . have no set theory of poetry.” Jim Larwill is the only other of the group that I know immediately. I recall hearing him read for the first time at TREE in an open-set several years ago where he identified himself immediately as an OmniGothic NeoFuturist. Larwill has done some important and interesting things over his career as a poet (several minutes of a recent reading can be seen over at Pesbo). His son, Alastair Larwill, is becoming active these days as well, performing in various iterations of jwcurry’s Messagio Galore, giving his own sound poetry performances and, I believe, currently running the Sasquatch Reading Series.
Michelle has fifteen poems in Speak!. According to the acknowledgements in Last Child to Come Inside, only “Choosing a Counter” is repeated in both collections. Her biography declares that she is working on a manuscript titled “More Like Us”—perhaps this became Last Child to Come Inside?
She had a poem included in the second run of the OC Transpo Transpoetry project in 2006 along with Stephen Brockwell and others. Her poem was “Skating”:
It only happens rarely that the line between
fall and winter is a single sheet
snap frozen on the lake no snow or
wind to mar the surface. Trees black-feather
the low border of grey sky. The ice a clear glass
and the shallow pebbled bottom of the
lake passing below me as if I’m flying.
The sudden darkness of this land dropping away,
my breath catching, and fish appearing beneath my feet,
a muscled brightness that I begin to follow.
Michelle can also be found in Decalogue: Ten Ottawa Poets (Ottawa: Chaudiere, 2006) with nine poems under the title “Drift.”
The anthology is built in such a way that it reads like a collection of chapbooks. Each of the ten poets is given 10-20 pages under a title.
What people do to pass the time
between when things happen of account,
those long lonely nights and
the hands must do something
with sharp instruments onto
surfaces; incise micro-thin lines
called decoration that recount
tales of past adventure.
Beneath only the light of stars, maybe a
moon, expanses used to
lay down history and then
the night’s ink rubbed in
so while they sleep you can read
what you’ve drawn and see
the great ships again, the vast
whales and oceans,
for others to find and polish
your scrimshaw people.
Michelle was also a finalist in the CBC Literary Awards in 2005, though I’m unable to find a useful link for that year of the contest.
This material collected is likely between thirty and forty pages of poems in addition to Last Child to Come Inside. This represents only what I was able to find on my bookshelves immediately. I suspect there is more to be found. Leave a comment or send me an email if you have other material and I’ll amend it to this post.
While there are many people who desperately want more new work from Michelle, this is enough to recognize that she has not been silent. She reads fairly regularly in Ottawa, she teaches a poetry workshop at Carleton University occasionally, and also likely appears at least irregularly in literary magazines when editors are able to successfully get new work from her. The point is, we have more than enough of Michelle’s work to recognize how lucky we are to have any at all. We can only hope to see more in the future, but to have as much as we already do is a wonderful thing. Go seek it out!