By Peter Campion
POETRY FOUNDATION SYNDICATE
A Word Like Fire: Selected Poems, by Dick Barnes. Handsel Books. $17.00.
The superb poems of Dick Barnes, who died in 2000, inhabit the same America as the photographs of Robert Frank or Gary Winogrand. They have that bright sheen of things as they are, and also that persistent undercurrent of weirdness. Most of them are poems of the rural west, of its modern yet untamed expanse. But they exhibit neither the scenic platitudes nor the macho swagger that mar so much current rural poetry (and, in the end, make it so easy to label "rural poetry"). Barnes's textures and tones are far more surprising.
Often, humor deepens the poems. In "Helendale: Waiting by the Mojave River," Barnes's nod to Chaucer, an alfalfa farmer, awakened by a car crash on the highway, mistakes the sound of the horn for the trumpet of the angel Gabriel. So he sets his barn on fire as a beacon. Here's how the poem ends:
he told the insurance company how it happened,
was laughed at, got angry, had to quit
the Kiwanis Club after a fight, and he felt lonely
until he thought: "Well:
I reckon if Noah could take it so could I."
I find the farmer's perseverance hilarious but devastating. Barnes has a talent for getting such seemingly exclusive feelings to intertwine. This character, for example, seems patently moronic. But as with most outcasts, there's something we can't bear about ourselves in him: he acts as a cipher for our own blind faith, our own belief in "core values" like honesty and dedication.
He also takes part, even in the form of his pathetic comedy, in gorgeous drama. These poems work to convey the agony of being caught between this world and the beyond: they're stations along the way, moments of clarification. Barnes himself is a poet of deep religious feeling. "Up Home Where I Come From" and the title poem are the best devotional lyrics of our time. But Barnes tempers, and intensifies, that spiritual impulse with his sobering, photographic urge to show what he sees. The modulation of tone in his poems acts, then, not simply as a formal device but as a register of the shifts and recalibrations that occur in the poet's view of the world as he ventures to discern truth.
This makes him particularly well-suited for narrative and portraiture. His turns of plot and his pivoting points of view become, as the lines progress, the attentive view of compassion. Consider the elegy in sonnet form, "Goodbye to Big Ed":
Little he thought when he hid out in his own house
for the pleasure of stomping burglars enticed by the dark
that he'd die, and die young, and in great pain like this,
thrown from his bike at speed where he broke his neck
and lay five hours on boulders in the creekbed
until death took him at last. Little he thought
about any of it: the preacher was right when he said
Big Ed wasn't afraid to die. Whenever he fought
it was for fun, or a good turn, or sheer pride of life.
See him armed in his undershirt, out in his back yard
the new boulevard had cut through, by the clothesline,
hollering I'LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO STARE AT, FAGGOT
down to someone stopped at the traffic light, meaning
no harm by it, really: not meaning anything.
There's a lot to admire in this technique: the muffled but persistent metric, or the blend of sincerity and sarcasm that barb at the expense of the preacher, for instance. Such formal nuances contribute to the complexity of the portrait. As the tone changes, so does our view of Big Ed. He's both the belligerent hardass and the helpless young man who suffers a terrible death. He's both the complex character made of such contrasts and the sheer individual soul "not meaning anything."
Like the lyrics of Thomas Hardy or the harmonica solos of Little Walter, these poems are carefully inflected and cunningly unsettled. They appear perfect in their formal containment, but they unfold their coiled insinuations long after you read them. I'm convinced that, in the future, any anthology of twentieth-century American poetry which neglects Dick Barnes will seem ridiculous.
Peter Campion is the author of a book of poems, Other People, and a monograph on the painter Mitchell Johnson.
© 2007 by Peter Campion. All rights reserved.