(Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2012)
As a writer, I create yearlong, but because of my position as an instructor of English composition, summer remains my season of “play,” three months when I treat writing like a full-time job. The giddiness of this freedom echoes back to my distant but distinct existence before summer jobs like golf caddying, dishwashing, bagging groceries, and even, one summer, unloading trucks, ushered me into the workforce. I find that this sense of play remains urgent, even essential, to my own work, but, more pressingly, to the books I choose to read. The spare, yet intricate poems in Catherine Barnett’s second full-length collection, The Game of Boxes, fulfill this need for linguistic and imaginative diversion. She is concerned with how we talk to our gods, our parents, our children, and our lovers. Reading Barnett’s work feels, happily, like play as it breaks through inattention and ennui to refigure the familiar in terms so original they become alien.
The book’s opening section offers more than a dozen poems with the title “Chorus,” most of them invoking a collective “we.” In the “Chorus” poem beginning “We thought it was safe under trees,” a storm overhead sweeps away an onlooker’s scarf, which Barnett describes as “red like a toy.” What type of toy, exactly, is withheld, the result being a controlled ambiguity that reverses expectations. To say a storm lifts and moves something as if it were a toy would be using a threadbare simile, but Barnett has switched movement for color—just one of many times in the collection that my anticipations were refreshingly thwarted. Barnett approaches language as a flexible, malleable material to work with, as opposed to a set of fixed or inherited formulas. In fact, it seems to be the formulaic that the poems want to undermine via play, as in “Sojourn,” which presents an autobiographical speaker having her picture taken by her son. The son is unhappy with the photo and asks playfully “Do it again [. . .] Pretend you’re really climbing” and the poet, upon seeing the second version, is unsure if her eye is “smiling or crying,” creating more of that ambiguity. It is an unlikely place to end, and this is one of many poems in the book that employs non-closure (charged with negative capability) to punctuate the personal lyric. Nothing ends neatly—get used to it, I can almost hear the work saying beneath its breath. Later in the book, the poem “Providence” begins, “This evening I shared a cab with a priest,” the setup to a million jokes about religion, ethics, and mortality, but this particular priest reveals that “Some of the best sermons / don’t have endings,” a possibility that Barnett’s attractive and challenging work hinges upon.
Amidst poems that consider both literal and spiritual states of parent-child duality, twenty-four short lyrics (all collected in their own section under the title “sweet double, talk-talk”) explore love and sex with more fresh turns and moments of surprise. In the poem beginning “Sure, I say, fine, as if it doesn’t matter,” Barnett delivers a metaphor to impart the pleasure of a lover’s touch: “a match lifted from its neat white box / and struck on the afterlife bed.” The phrase “afterlife bed” pushes the reader back to the poems’ subject (the physical act of sex) while adding the strangely abstract modifier “afterlife,” a leap that successfully builds on the poetic momentum created by the unexpected “struck match” metaphor. Later, in “I want to see his face,” the speaker’s lover is “skipping rocks across a grave / or swinging his legs at its edge.” These images defy common sense (as well as accuracy of action), which help create halting, haunting visuals. Another poem from the same series begins, “Though I can’t sleep neither could I wake,” a tense shift so subtle that it might slip right by. But it underlines the poet’s awareness of consciousness (dreaming is its own peculiar and unconscious form of play, memory and our conception of the past being another) and leaves unclear where and when the poem takes place.
Confronted once more with a suspension of finality, I’m reminded that Barnett’s poems fail to make “sense” in order to reflect a world that fails, too, to convincingly manufacture closure. The last poem in “sweet double, talk-talk” begins “Then he whispers there, there as if I were a child / and not a woman lying beside him // but what’s wrong with that.” The Game of Boxes reminds us that even grown-ups are still capable of fear, wonder, confusion, anger, joy, lust, and desire, and that in a mass culture rife with false resolution and happy endings, poetry can provide the necessary weight to return us to terra firma and the complicated, unceasing task of being human: a task that requires compassion, improvisation, and acceptance of the uncertain; a task that asks for a bit of innocence, even ignorance—in other words, a bit of play.
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Catherine Barnett is an American poet and educator. She is a Distinguished Lecturer at Hunter College, the Visiting Poet of Bernard College, and teaches the creative writing program at New York University. Her book The Game of Boxes was awarded the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. She also wrote Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced (Alice James Books, 2004).
You can purchase The Game of Boxes at retailers like Amazon.