The Threadbare Art of the Eye: Improvisation and Irreverence in Vertex/Vertigo by John Oughton

Robert Lowell’s quote from the poem Epilogue “But sometimes everything I write/with the threadbare art of my eye/seems a snapshot” might be a suitable prologue to John Oughton’s chapbook Vertex/Vertigo published by Big Pond Rumours in 2016.

The chapbook gathers poems written after the publication of the author’s last collection, Time Slip.

John Oughton’s literary career spans decades and occupies a special place in the Canadian literary landscape.

John Oughton, photo credit: Canadian Poetry on line

Born in 1948 in Guelph, Ontario, John Oughton attended Glendon College where he completed a BA and MA in English at York University. He studied with Irving Layton, Eli Mandel, Miriam Waddington and Frank Davey.

The writer’s work includes a mystery novel and five poetry books, several chapbooks and hundreds of literary reviews and articles.

Vertex/Vertigo opens with a high impact poem: Rock/Star.

Rock/Star uses the deceptive framework of what appears, at first glance, to be a short narrative; its metaphors sketch a link between the terrestrial ambient and the far-off cosmos:

“This warm round rock

maybe the exact image of one face

of a minor moon of Jupiter

or one circular slice of the universe

from a place we can’t see yet.”

As if brought forward from a painting of the Group of Seven, the immensity of the universe adumbrates the verses in Aurora Borealis:


We finger the fake lace

curtain, search flat grey

sky for signifiers

Unseen Northern Lights

Wave slap-crackling

their phosphorescent curtains”

and Grey Sky:

“The sky slowly ripples,

admits light, barred clouds

roll west like chorused nays.

It’s the same old world, and we

are no better

than yesterday. “

The poet’s sense of humor erupts to the surface throughout the chapbook, balancing out somber overtones with an inherent ludic propensity and amusing irreverence.

Thus, in the poem O My, we are met with some memorable lines:

“O my foolish heart

et cetera.

What lies beneath

Latin laziness?

Item – She gave me her second country,

but not her secret bower.

Item – her online description

was romantic fiction.

John Oughton’s gift for improvisation takes us into a whirlwind of associations in the poem Why Are You So Drawn?” which echoes the title of the chapbook:



vortex of vertices –

Dash it all, with verdigris

Which way to the stars?

What is the royal road to knowing

nothing at all –“

In Vertex/Vertigo, the musicality of words is a vehicle for constantly expanding the poetic universe.

In a format that reminds us of jazz techniques, alliterations allow for creative insets, as is the case of the poem Precipitation:

“When I sit at my last table,

Right by the kitchen of Les Presques Morts,

I will order winter dishes

Since snow, in its effortless slide,

Its susurrus of silent sss

Is closest to death. “

Death, in John Oughton’s poem is a space of hushed memories, which are part of everyday existence:

“So, a toast to the dead –

Their city of silence,

Soft presence on the air.”

(from the award-winning poem Drinking With The Dead)

As the counterpoint to death, love remains one option is John Oughton’s verses:

“makes me blue

makes you gold

weaves of us that

tartan of circumstance

the theory that we

will embrace

somewhere over Manitoba.”

Vortex/Vertigo is a it is a poetry collection that should be read and re-read, with the understanding that each reading may be conducive to more forays into John Oughton’s poetry.

Vertex/Vertigo by John Oughton

Big Pond Rumours, 2016 ISBN: 978-0-9780201-5-6 $10 + $2 shipping

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