Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Porcupinity of the Stars -- Gary Barwin

Gary Barwin is an imagist, and an unapologetic one. An adherent of the “show don’t tell” school, he relies on nothing except image to communicate ideas, thoughts or feelings. The poetry is purely visual, and pretty cerebral, too. Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t strike a chord emotionally, just intellectually. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It feels a lot like haiku.

What is intriguing about Barwin’s work is the strangeness of the image. Simply the act of picturing some things—for a brief moment imagining them to be true—is effective because of the oddity.

Daddy said
Son you have to make your own dog
if you have none

and I said
I have a fire hydrant
so I can just imagine

The fun of the poem lies in looking at it from all angles. It’s like holding up an unfamiliar kitchen utensil and wondering, “What in the world is this?”

Barwin is confident in his style. His writing is exactly what he intends it to be. The closest he ever gets to an explicit message and opinion is

a poem doesn’t have to have fourteen perfect lines
or else you’re spitting on graves

maybe you’ll slip up and tell a truth
stick your elbow into something

The question, I suppose, is whether the images resonate with you—whether they stick in your mind or get under your skin.

ants gather around the barbecue tongs
gasoline rainbows on the tarmac
a seven-year-old tries to run along the curb
man with the face of a pelican
squeezes out greatness
late in the afternoon
Most poems concern everyday life, but I think Barwin is at his best when he lets the surreal fantasy that pervades his work really manifest into something that disturbs the tranquility. In this he reminds me of Ted Hughes.

don’t do it, I said
choosing a piece of toast
a perfect fried egg

but she unhooked her jaw
and swallowed the sun

now it was really dark
and she stood up from the table
breakfast was over

I couldn’t find my running shoes
or my briefcase and
my dreams were of the moon spitting
as I tried to play chess

my abdomen was a sand dune
shaped by the wind
into the grains of a million
directionless games of beach volleyball

an infinite number of piglets
gnawed on my fingers, which were sprouting
uncomfortably from every orifice
there was no coffee
The line that makes the poem (the excerpt, actually) is “There was no coffee”. What is otherwise mundane gains significance when abutting a domestic Ragnarok.

Poem by poem, we get a slide show of everyday life seen through the prism of strangeness and fantasy. I think the proper way to enjoy Barwin is the same way I would enjoy just such a slideshow: I’d relax, zone out, and let the pictures click by me, one by one, not trying to understand, just looking intently.

Recommended if you like Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Mina Loy, Amy Lowell, the British Martian Poets like Craig Raine, or haiku.

1 comment:

  1. Cool review! It almost does have a haiku feel, at least in its brevity. Interesting. It's like if haiku allowed itself to be surreal.