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.
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 tongsMost 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.
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
don’t do it, I saidThe line that makes the poem (the excerpt, actually) is “There was no coffee”. What is otherwise mundane gains significance when abutting a domestic Ragnarok.
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
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.