Places, Presence, Modernity: Five Volumes of Poetry
Taylor, John, Michigan Quarterly Review
PLACES, PRESENCE, MODERNITY: FIVE VOLUMES OF POETRY
A Word Like Fire: Selected Poems. By Dick Barnes. Edited and with a Foreword by Robert Mezey. New York: Other Press (Handsel Books), 2005. Pp. xxiv + 141. $17.
Controlling the Silver. By Lorna Goodison. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Pp. 99. $14.95.
Brother Salvage. By Rick Hilles. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. Pp. 80. $14.
Ossabaw. By David Hamilton. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Salt Publishing, 2006. Pp. 101. $15.95.
Optic Nerve: Photopoems. By Janet Sternburg. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2005. Pp. 70. $16.95.
I live in France, rarely return to the United States, but it happened that one morning in late July 2006 I was-like the poet Dick Barnes (1932-2000) often was-"in Ludlow for breakfast with the humorous Chinaman, Lee." There can be no doubt about the identity of this café that Barnes implicitly cites, even if the poem goes back some fifteen or twenty years. Ludlow is situated in the Mojave Desert, and the café in question is still the only authentic place in town in which an expatriate American, his French wife, and French-American teenage son can hope to eat real fried eggs and bacon (or finger sausages or hash browns), all the while drinking free refills of weak American coffee à l'ancienne, by which I mean that caffè lattes, cappuccinos, and the like are proscribed. The ambience that morning was noisy, friendly, and virile, if not exactly humorous (Lee was apparently off work). Outside we had left behind the record heat wave, increasingly suffocating even at nine a.m., as well as "wild miles of just weeds and the trees along the river // out by the air force base," as Barnes sums up such landscape in "The Longing of the Soul for Absence." As a writer raised five decades ago in a quiet suburb of Des Moines and who has now long lived in the Anjou, a part of France known for its streams and sweet white wines, its green foliage and mild climate (which the sixteenth-century poet Joachim du Bellay himself sums up as "Ia douceur angevine"), I had been wondering, while sipping my brownish coffee, listening to ranchers conversing, and appreciating the air conditioning, if an American poet had perhaps attempted to evoke, describe, or sing such a desert climate, and especially social climate.
I learned only after we had returned to France that Barnes is that poet. Had I found his A Word Like Fire among the postcards (also à l'ancienne) on the twirling stand near the cash register, I would have tried to convince my wife and son that we should veer off Interstate 40, destined to speed us to Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, and the Petrified Forest, and instead detour, in inverted order, to "Essex and Cadiz Summit, great tamarisked Chambless, // (. . .) Newberry Springs, Dagget and Elephant Butte." Place names are crucial to Barnes, and he sometimes lists them as in a litany, giving them an almost sacred sonority. I would have been happy to search for a "river [that had] worn a channel through boulders, and flows / north and east from The Forks a hundred miles without tributaries." And likewise happy to meditate in situ on Barnes's fine perception, in the same short love poem from which the previous Unes are drawn, that a dry lake can be "a mirror, where the river / gives itself up to the sky." For all the differences between the Mojave Desert and the climes in which most of us live, Barnes's poems function as mirrors of the same Man and the same Life that we come across every day.
A Word Like Fire is a precious selection of his little known and ill-circulated poems from A Lake on the Earth (1982), Few and Far Between, (1994), and the posthumous Granite Intrusive, the typescript of which was found among his papers-as one learns in Robert Mezey's precisely and persuasively argued critical foreword. Moving and thoughtful poems like "Alfalfa," "Up Home Where I Come From," "Erles," and "Example and Admonition" deserve a place among those written by poets, ranging from Edgar Lee Masters to Barnes's friend William Stafford (to whom he pays homage in a touching nine-line piece), who have forged a distinctly American way of exploring universal themes in (very) local microcosms, that is in l'Amérique profonde. …