Cover to Gavin Barrett's book of poems Understan, with an image of the poet as a negative and a letter cloud of the letters from the title

Understan (Mawenzi House, June 2020) is Gavin Barrett’s first collection of poems and spans some 35 years of his poetry.

Understan is a reflective journey through what lies below the surface, crisscrossing continents, interior landscapes and decades, frequently and sometimes impatiently. Despite that span, it is rooted in minute, personal details, using them to unravel love, death and longing on visits to memory and other cities. It abuses belief and superstition equally, like an unhinged man yelling at all the cars passing on a street. At the same time, it stops to pray or praise elders, lovers and children. It contains jihadis, garbage trucks, a hummingbird, brothers, zero. In Understan, the poet is lost but holds the map to everywhere.

In an era where thoughtless majoritarianism (see Cultural Appropriation Prize) and insane populism (see Trump, Ford) are mating to produce the beasts of the coming apocalypse, the poetry of lovers and iconoclasts from other lands but very present here and now, is an antidote for dull conformity, prefabricated canons, and the expectations of an unchallenged priesthood of culture. Any act of literature by an immigrant and a person of colour is a necessary and subversive act of great beauty. Understan is such an act of resistance.

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Understan is a CBC Books recommendation.

Gavin Barrett’s poetry collection Understan takes the reader on a beautiful kaleidoscopic journey from Goa, India, throughout the various places he has lived, including Toronto and environs. The poems sojourn with his enduring love for his wife and his love for humanity. Understan manifests Barrett’s multiple influences from T.S. Eliot to Arun Kolatkar in poems inspired by family, faith (Catholicism), racism, and social injustice.

Kate Rogers in Prism International

“In the black hours of night, great poetry is hard to define. It exists just outside our grasp, outside our understanding of a universe which defies explanation. It touches us gently, almost imperceptibly, constantly reaffirming our common ground. Barrett’s exceptional poetry collection Understan is the very definition of great poetry.” 

— The Joao-Roque Literary Journal

“There’s such joy in these poems, such sensual, vivid, rich detail. These portraits of fragile and tremulous moments are both cinematic and moving… I thought of T. S. Eliot and Leonard Cohen combined.”

— The Minerva Reader

“With this greater appreciation of reality, we have a greater appreciation of ourselves. We are transformed, liberated, by this fresh perspective… I don’t usually enjoy long poems, but I found myself wishing there had been space for 10,000 of Barrett’s marvelous thoughts.” 

— Patrick Connors for the League of Canadian Poets