Only thirty-eight years old, the tortured poet John Thompson died in Sackville, New Brunswick, in 1976. His second book of poetry, the scarcely finished Stilt Jack, was published two years later. It has been deemed a minor Canadian classic—the kind of book that, in a more just or literate world, would be hailed as a national treasure. It has also been taken to suggest that Thompson—by all accounts, an alcoholic—was so in love with death that the coroner was wrong to rule his demise an accident.

The first of thirty-eight ghazals in Stilt Jack establishes the dismal mood: “Now you have burned your books: you’ll go / with nothing but your blind, stupefied heart.” In an essay on Thompson, poet, critic, and journalist Michael Lista writes that Stilt Jack “opens with a tone any barfly will recognize, the self-admonishing second person of your conscience telling you that you’re ruined.” Seemingly innocuous, that same word—barfly—reappears as the title of Lista’s disturbing new volume of poetry.

Morose and mischievous, his sharp-elbowed poems sound nothing like Thompson’s, and Barfly is less about imbibing than the sorrows one might attempt to drown. But this appreciation of Stilt Jack helps to explain Lista’s book, which imagines Eros and Thanatos as drinking buddies in what he calls “The Bar in Hell.” There are no ghazals to speak of in Barfly, although Lista plays with the sonic coincidence of “ghazal” and “guzzle.” Themes of intoxication and love permeate the book. Or maybe just “theme,” as if love and intoxication were one and the same.

Barfly is also the name of the old movie starring Mickey Rourke as Henry Chinaski, a stand-in for the well-lubricated American poet Charles Bukowski, who wrote the screenplay. “Don’t worry,” Henry tells Wanda, the love interest played by Faye Dunaway. “Nobody’s ever loved me yet.” Lista is no Bukowski—for one thing, he’s far too concise. Nonetheless there is something distinctly unlovable about the poems in Barfly and, on the face of it, their author as well.

Now, I can’t say where the persona and poet diverge. I’ve never met Lista. He plies his trade as a crime reporter; I teach poems about trees. He wrote a book called Barfly; I track my heart rate as if it were the Dow. Basically, I’m no fun. This makes me an unlikely reader of Lista’s poems, which are fun, completely miserable, and almost certainly bad for you. Barfly should be affixed with a Health Canada warning. You must be nineteen or older to purchase this product. Not safe in any amount. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

What’s wrong with Lista? That’s the overwhelming question raised by even the first few poems in this book of grievance and dejection—poems so frank they dare us to overlook the distinction between author and speaker. Among his dislikes are bookstores selling housewares, baseball, children, the US of A, Anne Carson, “that asshole Shakespeare,” and wellness—“Leave that for the rich kids in the West.” The things he does enjoy? That list is a lot shorter, and it doesn’t seem to include the work of his peers. No surprise there. As a critic, Lista is notorious for his stinging critical assessments and other impolitic statements. Years ago, a public contretemps with Jan Zwicky over the ethics of book reviews garnered him his fair share of detractors. He also had the temerity to suggest that Scott Griffin, beloved benefactor of Canadian poetry, was kind of a cultural money launderer. A voice in the wilderness of Toronto’s trendy Parkdale neighbourhood, Lista has long been cynical and idealistic in equal measure.

Like every important book of poetry, Barfly is its own aesthetic manifesto. In “Towards a Theory of Contemporary Poetry,” Lista indicts the Canadian variety:

       It’s chickenshit, just obtuse imagery,

       Prestigious, albeit a little late,
       Egregious, lily-white Latinate,

       Belated Anglo-Saxon set on farms,
       Swanning consonants of false alarms

He’s hardly the first to say so, but if the complaint is familiar, it’s also an effective spur to the poet himself. His dirges and satires are bold and blunt; they swap the indirection of imagery, obtuse or otherwise, for the snap of metre and rhyme. There are, however, plenty of dependable Anglo-Saxon words: Lista is satisfyingly crude.

In truth, he’s probably fine. His investigative journalism is being adapted into a series by Apple TV +, and in the poem “Based on a Story by Michael Lista,” he announces that he’s “too rich to count anything but money.” So what’s wrong with the speaker in his poems who is clearly not okay? Cherchez la femme. There was a wife-to-be; then there wasn’t. There was love; then there wasn’t. Lista allows that his shortcomings may be generational. “We’re in love, but we’re still millennials,” he writes in “My Love.” “What’s wrong with our hearts is congenital.” Yet the specifics of his romantic history, the details he slips into poems such as “Battle Raps,” suggest an acute form of the cardiac condition: “the love of my life . . . // Was getting married to somebody else, / And I was sleeping with somebody else’s // Wife.” To which boring, middle-aged me can only say: Poets!

Lista’s first two books gave little hint of his turn toward the drunken and amatory, as Thompson described the ghazal. Lista published his debut, Bloom, in 2010. In some respects, it was a typical “project book,” a collection of poems based on an elaborate concept as opposed to a miscellany. Bloom yokes the Manhattan Project to James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom and responds to a variety of modern and contemporary poets. The follow-up, The Scarborough, in 2014, was better and darker. An oblique rumination on the Bernardo–Homolka murders, a formalist study of psychopathy, it was impressive but not exactly pleasurable. Then Lista went quiet. Sort of. Two years later, he published Strike Anywhere, a selection of book reviews and other essays, notably including “The Shock Absorber,” which connects the dots between the Griffin Poetry Prize and a multi-billion-dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia. (Strike Anywhere reprints the essay on Thompson mentioned above.) The Human Scale, which compiled his true-crime articles, appeared in 2023. Lista didn’t vanish, but ten years out of the poetry racket made it seem that he might have abandoned the game for good.

On the evidence of Barfly, the time away left him with a host of grudges, each a whisky to be nursed. Yet Lista writes about his peeves and his overproof paranoia with remarkable economy. Barfly contains just over fifty poems, many of them exceedingly short. “One Last Shot of Jameson” is a single rhyming couplet. “Snow,” all four lines of it, is composed of only twenty-six words. I have seldom seen a poetic utterance less verbose than the pair of lines that I am about to quote in full: “? / ?” The question marks, found in a poem called “Fuck You,” punctuate a crucial question:

       I call


       Fuck You
       & other poems


A little vulgarity never hurt anyone, but I wonder at the laconic hostility. Is this a cri de coeur or a knowing repudiation of eloquence? Not that the expletive fails to convey the message. Either way, these lines illustrate the impeccably bad taste and the mistrust of language that characterize Barfly in its entirety. Incidentally, when I checked whether anyone had actually published a book called Fuck You & Other Poems, Amazon cheekily recommended Philip Larkin’s Complete Poems. Artificial intelligence indeed.

In “Forgive Me, Leonard,” the prologue poem, Lista points at an easy target: “I knew literature had lost the battle / Once bookstores started selling scented candles.” We all despise potpourri and knick-knacks, but more consequential is the notion that Barfly is a post-literary book. Poets tend to be suspicious of poetry, yet in “The Bill,” Lista admits his weakness:

       I only write poems
       —And trust me, I try not to—

       When my heart is really broken
       Which ended up being most of the time.

Ah, that old story! But Lista protests too much, his reluctance a ruse. He’s as enamoured of language as the job description entails, yet his exploration of darkness—his thematic misanthropy—demands a deliberately constrained deployment of poetic skill. This via negativa lends the poems their distinctive style: they sound as if they were written by some chucklehead at the gym. Yet Barfly, deft and intelligent, is intensely engaged in literary dialogue. An opaque epigraph from Hamlet suggests that Lista’s speaker is no ordinary dudebro but an incarnation of the moping Danish prince. “I’m not Kenneth Branagh,” Lista writes in “Barfly.” “I don’t want to be Hamlet.” But he is fascinated by things rank and gross in nature, not least as he embodies them. Knock on the door, as in the poem “Jeff,” and there stands the poet, naked and exposed.

Hamlet aside, Barfly begins and ends with Leonard Cohen. “Forgive Me, Leonard” concludes by recycling a beloved line: “That’s how the light gets in.” Throughout Barfly, Lista wavers between a desire to let light in and an impulse to hide in the murk. The next poem, “Auld Lang Syne,” revisits the image of illumination. “You can still shut the lights off,” he writes in the final couplet. “And even turn them on if you want to.” Cohen returns in “I Want to Go to Mount Baldy,” a not very Zen poem about receding hairlines. And Leonard’s “famous crack” shows itself again in “Hungover”—the last poem, naturally—as Lista taunts the weather: “Blow winds. Blow until your cheeks crack.” Here I pause and reflect on Shelley (“thou breath of Autumn’s being”) and Shakespeare (“Blow, blow, thou winter wind”).

Just kidding. This isn’t poesy but a Bronx cheer. You should listen to Cohen as you read Barfly, but choose wisely: you need the sleazy synths and cheesy drum machines of I’m Your Man. In Strike Anywhere, Lista claims that “the tackiness that made Cohen distasteful as a man is exactly what makes him fascinating in his most enduring work, Various Positions and The Future. His lyricism in those two albums is at its most formally accomplished, but undercutting its majesty is the Closing-Set-at-the-Lido-Bar-in-Hell schmaltz of his beloved Casio synthesizer.” That’s one explanation, before the fact, of Field Commander Lista’s terrible taste. Like Cohen and Thompson, he is a juggler of contradictions.

Given the wordplay and formal ingenuity in Barfly, it’s hard not to see Irish poet Paul Muldoon as a model. The poems also sound echoes of Larkin and Dorothy Parker. But above all, I think of the perpetually cancellable American poet Frederick Seidel—octogenarian, enthusiast of diamonds and Ducatis, a man of extraordinary means dubbed “Kanye Baudelaire” by one online wag. A poet of the school of Rumsfeld and Bush (pun intended), Seidel’s primary techniques are shock and awe. From the outset, he has been, as we now say, problematic in the extreme. Having rhymed “china” and “vagina” in 1989 (in These Days), he saw fit to repeat the mistake in 2006 (in Ooga-Booga). (He took until then to inflict “mania” and “labia” upon us.)

Lista himself is a thundering rhymer, his truncated lines ending with a boom, a thump of the fist on the table. He is at his most Seidel-like in the ostentatiously offensive “Lebensraum”—“I wrote all these poems / In my living room”—in which he rhymes “Hitler” with “Twitter.” More typical is a pair of short lines from “Alea Iacta Est”: “Ergo / I don’t know.”

Seidel and Lista indulge in similar forms of calculated badness. In both cases, the aesthetic lapse is ironic; for the dapper Seidel, as for Lista the arbiter of critical opinion, taste and style should be everything. Lista is decadent—in the sense of Baudelaire and Valéry—but he does not inhabit the beau monde through which Seidel glides. Lowbrow Lista goes nowhere. He presents himself as an unsympathetic, unsavoury character, but there is more than enough wit in the poems to betray the persona. Although he is often flippant, proclaiming, à propos of nuclear apocalypse, that “Eliot knew dick about the bomb,” he concludes on an almost uplifting note. In “Hungover,” he chooses to live—“To keep my vigil of the world, to stare / At all its brokenness, its ready snare, // And dare it do what it would dare.” If Fred is, in his own terrible pun, “sui-Seidel,” then Mike is at Lista little short on serotonin. But the needle’s not on empty yet. “Fine—fuck you—I’ll stay and love this life,” he writes in “Reasons to Live.” In the end, to be, or not not to be, is preferable to the alternative.

At times, the misanthropy in Barfly is expressed so plainly that the satire is hard to perceive. In “Kids,” for instance, Lista writes: “Everyone who wanted to fuck me once / Left me because I wouldn’t give her kids.” Give? I know another word starting with “mis-” that would be appropriate here. But lest it seem that his poetry is aimed at incels, Lista takes a few shots at Jordan Peterson and whatever advice he dispenses “on page one hundred and who-gives-a-shit.” He has no greater patience for the Twitter-purchasing “South African clown.” “I’m not Kyle Rittenhouse,” Lista declares in “I Have a Gun in My Mouth.” (Nor is he one for cryptic titles.) Most poets don’t need to reassure readers in this way; he seems to understand how easily an arch tone or a dash of irony may be missed. He recognizes, in other words, that although he may be “a sad white writer dude,” he is not merely “a sad white writer dude.”

Meanwhile, his commentary on poetry itself suggests that Lista has concerns beyond a broken heart and a sea of troubles. “America” offers a woeful metaphor:

       It’s a banana republic
       Wearing Banana Republic

       Manufactured in a banana republic
       And remaindered to a Banana Republic


But a remark in Strike Anywhere—“It’s the critic’s job to defend poetry from those who would inflate its value, like the central banker responsible for the currency of a banana republic”—allows for speculation that “America” is equally about the state of poetry, its exaggerated reputations and insipid sameness. In “Barfly,” Lista proposes, “A line of poetry / Should be a battery.” Again, Strike Anywhere is clarifying: “I’d like to think that I’m polarizing the way a battery is,” he writes, “energizing the flashlight by which you read in the dark only because it has a negative and a positive side.” The gruesome episodes of The Human Scale suggest a vocational metaphor to explain the bleakness of Barfly: the poet as crime writer. But I prefer another image to describe Lista and his dualities: the poet as Energizer Bunny.

Lista was once persona non grata in the small world of Canadian poetry. He may still be. Will Barfly bring him back into the fold? I doubt it. Memories are too long, and his reputation precedes him. I suspect he doesn’t care. Barfly is too odd, inward, and unpleasant—in the best sense of each term—to be met with widespread acclaim. But such is the fate of the poet fully committed to his odd, inward, and unpleasant task. Coming in from the cold, Lista reminds readers that a writer’s accomplishments are measured in the long run, not in the heat of the moment. Barfly also shows that Canadian poetry is not a unified community but something rowdier, more raucous. Like it or not, Lista makes room for himself, shoulder first, at the bar.

Nicholas Bradley
Nicholas Bradley lives in Victoria, BC. His most recent book of poetry is Before Combustion. He teaches at the University of Victoria.
James Lee Chiahan
James Lee Chiahan is an artist and graphic designer based in Toronto.