Alexis Lateef Reviews Stuart Barnes

11 November 2016

Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes
UQP, 2016


Stuart Barnes’s early exposure to poetry reads like a literary fantasy. As a child he attended the same Tasmanian church as Gwen Harwood. The two struck up an unlikely friendship, and Harwood encouraged him to write. That formative experience saw him move to Melbourne to study literature where, in 2005, he was handed a notebook and, once again, urged to write. Barnes’s first collection of poetry, Glasshouses, is the culmination of years of carefully honed impressions, reflections and commentary. It is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the artist, covering a yearning childhood, the development of a writer self, the difficulty of coming out, the paradoxes of mental health, and the solace of bird-watching. Additionally, it is a multi-faceted mirror of the world he inhabits, of the moments gathered throughout Tasmania, Melbourne and Queensland, and the dusty inner roads of the roving poet. Barnes does not stand still, and neither do the poems in this collection, whose vividness seems to leap from the pages.

The first section, modestly titled ‘Reflections’, opens with ‘Fingal Valley’, a reminiscence of a childhood in the Tasmanian countryside. ‘Nan’s budgerigar’, it begins: situating this locale within a child’s perspective, where pets often occupy a large, looming presence. Remembrances follow in a sudden, hurried manner, as the overflow of memories intrudes upon the present. There is exquisite phrasing here, as Barnes writes of ‘squeezing like morning / fog between oxidised barbed / wire and gorse’, merging both action, weather and environment in a potent image. There is mention of slug guns, sheep skulls and plovers, an amalgamation of the experiences of country kids. There are perceptions that only a child would have, such as in the lines, ‘transfixed by sixpence’ and ‘a leering toilet roll’. One of the finest moments is when Barnes tells of ‘night’s deer-sprint to the outdoor / loo / the top bunk’s hexagonal wiring sprung, / mattress oozing through cells like honey’. There is a sharp beauty in ‘night’s deer-sprint’ as it captures the child’s fear of night time, and also captivates with its romanticism. The final simile could refer to memory – it oozes through the cells of the poet’s mind and drips into his present.

‘Ebon Cans’ opens with an epigraph from ‘Bone Scan’ by Harwood. This is her seminal poem about an epiphany experienced while looking at her scan, which allows her to know what is ‘beneath appearances’. This is also a theme within Barnes’s poem, though it is not obvious at first. The poem seems to be based on the poet’s experience with his early mentor, and begins: ‘In the twinkling of her eye, all is changed’, as he writes of a child ‘afraid of almost everything … but books, and paper and pen’, who finds poetry via his mentor in the church. A disturbing revelation follows. A priest in the same church abuses him. Later, he struggles in high school, and is told he will amount to nothing: ‘his father’s negativity’. There is a powerful use of internal rhyme, a wave-like rhythm: ‘oily priest’, ‘will roil minds’, ‘he’ll coil at high school’; rolling us through the devastation in order to emphasise the flame within the poem, revealed in the final lines – ‘he glances over his shoulder. She mouths Write’. The lack of a closing full stop stresses the possibilities that follow. As in ‘Bone Scan’, where the scan reveals Harwood to herself, Barnes hints that the poet mentor is a scan revealing the young writer to himself. Underneath the trauma and fear is a burgeoning artist, who will write himself out of the pain.

‘ValproateFlouxetineClonazepam’ is the first of the poems tackling mental health. The title references three psychiatric medications, the lack of spaces indicating the run-on nature of taking these pills at the same time. ‘Every day four purple pills’, he begins, and there is an ominous air throughout, as the verbs indicate: ‘cochineals … burned’, ‘elephant’s head severed’, ‘flowers crushed’. The images these pills bring to mind are not images of recovery. In the third stanza he describes one of the tablets as the ‘Eucharist’ and ‘a sport’, bringing to mind the unquestioning acceptance, and the game played by the psychiatrist to find the right combination. The last stanza is most disturbing, as Barnes uses rhyme to drive home the words that are the antithesis of a cure:

These are the cures that isolate
These are the cures that chill
These are the cures that splice the will
These are the cures that kill

These lines are a subtle remix of the final stanza from ‘Elm’ by Sylvia Plath, a poem that explores the darkness of depression. Plath writes, ‘it petrifies the will / These are the isolate, slow faults / That kill, that kill, that kill.’ Plath is referring to the mental illness itself, whereas Barnes applies the devastation to the medications. They are posited as ‘cures’ but the sicknesses they induce present an obvious contradiction. Barnes brings into question the role of psychiatric medication, revealing an insider’s account of the difficulties. It is perhaps too easy to assume these ‘cures’ are simply that, so we are invited to consider another perspective. In ‘ENDONE Oxycodone hydrochloride 5 mg’, Barnes writes ‘it does not take the place of your doctor or pharmacist … accident or emergency.’ Is he implying the accident of mental illness? The accident of finding yourself tied to a doctor? Is he commenting on the emergency of relying on a pharmacist when your sanity is on the line? Again, he presents the side-effects of medication, writing ‘swallow / it before meals with a glass of nausea’.

The final stanza is acute and precise, a surge of negation where before there was commentary. Barnes writes:

Do not show your pupils, abnormal,
do not show your restlessness, do not show your goose-
flesh, do not show your fast heart rate, do not show your new-
born child to a doctor or pharmacist.

The sudden shock of the final line jolts us out of the dream-like, early stanzas. It presents the doctor and pharmacist in an almost criminal light, as he lists side-effects that lead up to a child born with defects as a result of the mother’s medication.

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