Alexis Lateef Reviews Stuart Barnes

By | 11 November 2016

‘Cyclone Songs’, the third section, is situated in Queensland with its notoriously extreme weather. Barnes’s poems work like photographs, isolating before, during and after. His is both the subjective, grounded feeling of the resident, and the objective, panoramic eye of the poet. ‘Prelude’ is foreboding, making good use of space to convey the fragments of silence before the storm hits. ‘“Powerlessness!” skeins of generators announce’, writes Barnes; ‘the only surety’s poetry’. It is certainly not the weather, which grows more unpredictable with the advance of climate change. ‘You do what you can, or Eleven steps’ lists an emotionless preparation for a cyclone, beginning with ‘rope the Queenslander’s tricolor windows … bump the porch’s plants to the outside laundry’. The poem then deepens into a pagan, old world insinuation. The poet advises, ‘pray to the starred goddess … “coin the “Sacrificial Chicken”’. The cyclone becomes otherworldly, a curse from the gods that demands sacrifice (of home? Plants? Windows?) – or would have, in an earlier time. In most of the poems in the sequence, cyclone damage becomes a stepping stone for a variety of concerns. ‘Blessed Be’ is a postscript to ‘You do what you can, or Eleven steps’. The ‘sacrificial chicken’ has been thrown, useless, into the bin, as the fridge lost power. Hungry Jacks’ debris is ‘piggy-backing the hospital’s grid’. Chainsaws, ‘the rash of silver tongues’, are busy removing dangerous trees. And the poet ponders, carving some practical certainty into this situation, by asking ‘the poetry gods / to write or not to write / to candlelight?’

‘First Mail’ conjures another frustrated day of waiting for the power to return. The postman ‘rouses you from blackout’; Barnes places us in his shoes, and reminds us of the stinking humidity, ‘the Clark Rubber mattress adhesive’. This is an unbearable situation, but there is humour too: his ‘BO’s a forerunner / of another bloody candlelit dinner’. Before, the idea of writing by candlelight seemed alluring, romantic – now it has become a nuisance. It is a poem that emphasises how reliant we are on our electricity, our technology. He ‘commemorates’ this day with a page of a book he is reading, which offers the word ‘PATIENCE’. Anyone who has ever lost their phone, or had their hot water disappear, or found their electricity faulty, can relate to this sudden capitalisation. These ‘cyclone songs’ do not suffer from an overflow of information – each line relaying the situation is brought forward like fragments from the ruined towns, and there is a sharp beauty in Barnes’s cut up articulation of an Australian nightmare.

The last section of the collection, titled ‘In a beautiful place in the country’, revolves around Barnes’s experiences of his rural upbringing, as well as in the country of his own mind. The expansive titular poem is a wondrous ode to teenage life, that wilderness few have survived unscathed. It’s a day in the life of the bored young poet, as he wanders through his country town in a Leopold Bloom manner, and into all the mundane encounters that take on a sharp vibrancy in hindsight. It is a series of wry observations that begins with a parent urging him out, and ends with the parent calling him back in for tea. The reader is placed in the poet’s position. ‘You slip on his flip-flops … slop to a drift of leaves … you back, dog-ear Myron … you flee the house, a character actor’. Barnes references golden canes, the ‘handsome women of Woody’s Supermarket’, Australia Post, the newsagency that ‘doesn’t sell The Australian or NME’, sherbert, commodores, sprinklers; it is a memorial poem to unknowing adolescence. The language is electric, highly playful and authentic. It is a reel of imagery that encourages submersion, both in the poem and in the reader’s own recollections of adolescence.

The poems plucked out and examined here are starting points for a thorough read and re-read of this stunning first collection. There is no singular theme – Glasshouses offers a variety of recollections, reflections, impressions and commentaries, and, to quote one of Barnes’s lines, ‘inscribes … discs of stillness’ where the reader can ponder and marvel.

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