Alexis Lateef Reviews Stuart Barnes

By | 11 November 2016

Then there are the breathtaking explorations of one’s environment, specifically birds, which highlight Barnes’s astute eye for romantic connotations in a hushed, near-mystical sense. ‘Black Cockatoos’ is a masterpiece of potent imagery. It opens:

red-
tailed Bedouins 
of Poetry, black
cockatoos embroider
the sun into us,
seam-rip it asunder.

The cockatoos are poets, bringers of romanticism, connecting us to an awareness of the life-giving sun as we glance up to witness them, and then rip that connection with their flight-paths as we move from awe of the sun to awe of the cockatoos. The embroidery metaphor is sustained throughout, a delicate touch, as Barnes writes: ‘Indefatigable black / and needlepointed into this / starry orange and yellow.’ Elsewhere they are placed within the context of Fitzroy, and assume a dominating presence: ‘cracking seeds of eucalypts / that outrank Council’. While there is a sense of proud freedom, the final stanza is darker, presenting us with caged cockatoos who are as ‘long-lived as man’. Barnes bitterly mentions the ROYGBIV (hues of the rainbow) as an illusion ‘destroyed by the tiniest prism’. Perhaps the cockatoos are like the ROYGBIV, giving off the illusion of glorious freedom, when, once captured, they are deprived of their magic. It is a poem that is both ode and political commentary.

A defining feature of this collection is its experimentation with form. For example, there is the polished villanelle, ‘Horus and Set’, an ode to the moon. Too often villanelles can sound contrived and tired, but each line of this one is deft enough that the repetition works wonderfully:

From his ebony eyrie
the moon is salubrious,
round as the white lotus' root. 
The desert's his adversary.

One gains a deeper enjoyment of each honed line, as they come in hypnotic waves. ‘another journey by train’ conveys the motion and stop-start nature of travel, through a mix of upper case, lower case, fonts and text characters – a visual treat, which must be seen on the page to be appreciated. There is also the prose poem ‘I’, which utilises the dashes that characterise Emily Dickinson’s work, to present the clipped nature of the emotional turmoil that is experienced when coming out and when a relationship ends:

‘Are you—’ ‘Yes, Mum.’ ‘You'll fucking die of AIDS.’ I apologised—I
can only sympathise with the daily rain of brimstone, fire. In artificial air I lay on my
side and scrutinised the waverings of your eye

Then there is the humour of a poem like ‘Proverbs’, which conveys a deep love of poetry in a tongue-in-cheek manner. The poet morphs common proverbs into literary wisdom, referencing elegy, metaphor, couplets, metre, odes, similes; a few choice lines include, ‘you can’t get blood out of a trope’, ‘procrastination’s the thief of metre’, and ‘nothing is certain but stress and narrative’. This is a poem that will delight poets.

The titular poem is one of the strongest in the collection. ‘Glasshouses’ recalls the poet’s father, who whistles the Johnny Cash song ‘A boy named Sue’ (a song that grapples with masculine identity) as he constructs ‘cold frames, terminuses … of the dark Goliath dwarfing his father’s orchard.’ This is an unusual line; the speaker is described as the pagan outsider, the one in opposition to the ‘god’ – his father – as his child-self plays around the construction site. The poet compares his father’s work to his own writing practice: ‘every morning I clack my own / kind of cold frame.’ His father tickles him, ‘fingers wiggling’, but the speaker’s own fingers, ‘like flourishing bruises, purple and burn’. This is a poem that brings to mind Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’. Heaney watches his father dig potatoes, admiring his strength and skill, but accepts that his will be a different path, that of writing: ‘between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests … I will dig with it.’ Barnes’s poem emphasises the intensity of the poet working with the raw material of experiences that are almost too hot for his fingers to bear. Glasshouses are designed to let in as much sun as possible. Perhaps poems, too, allow a sort of sunlight into our lives, encouraging seedling thoughts to emerge into a new clarity.

‘Rabbit Catcher’ is another remix of Plath, a favourite of Barnes. He has distilled her poem here; it carries the disturbed intensity of the original, but in a stripped back way, so that certain phrases are highlighted and brought forward for scrutiny. It is a prelude to the section ‘Five Centos’, which celebrates the poetic form based on patching lines from different poets into a seamless new poem. Barnes is particularly fond of this, as he has mentioned in interviews, and he assembles them like a skilful clockmaker. The opening cento, ‘Cinquecento’ owes its debt to sixteenth and seventeenth century poets like Aemilia Lanyer, John Donne, Phillip Sidney, Mary Wroth and Thomas Wyatt, to name a few. The art of the cento involves knowing where to place the potent and where to place the simple, and Barnes does this beautifully. The poem is sinister; the speaker, possibly a woman, talks of her approaching death. ‘The time is come, I must depart / my last thread, I shall perish on the shore; / ring out your bells, let mourning shows be spread,’ the speaker intones gravely, before the bringer of death comes for her; and yet, ‘oh, what a lantern, what a lamp of light / avising the bright beams of these fair eyes / where muses (like bees) make their mansion’. This last stanza reveals the alchemy of a cento; it reads flawlessly, building up the imagery carefully, and makes a new poetic sense out of ageing verse.

There is another cento, ‘Matrimonies’ which is composed of poetic lines from Harwood’s work, a fitting tribute. It is a poem celebrating music and the claim that it can transcend death:

Feel in your hands, before you play,
trembling in warmth, and rising,
the agitation of the strings/
 
I am high on acid rock, on wandering glitter ...
I feel your pulsebeat through my fingertips.

Barnes is a self-confessed music fan, and there are references throughout the collection to The Cure and Kate Bush. Harwood, too, was passionate about music and several of her poems convey this. It is a thing of beauty to take these musical references from Harwood and bring them together in a homage that not only celebrates Harwood’s love for melody, but also Barnes’s own.

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