With literally thousands of poetry books being churned out each year, when one surfaces suddenly in a reader’s mental ocean it is miraculous. Wendy Barker’s new collection, Gloss (Saint Julian Press, 2020), is one of those miracles, certainly for this reader.
Far from just liking the thirty-six poems that comprise her book, I love them. Here’s why: First, she has mastered the long line. While technically many of the poems are classed as prose poems, their varied rhythms and their development through exquisite imagery and metaphor retain an inbuilt musicality reminiscent of traditional forms:
Like a book, Mom said about life: you turn the page and go on. The same way she moved in and out of houses. Garage sale after sale. Each year like a chapter torn from a novel’s spine and hurled.
The syntax here mimics the abrupt turning of those pages, the sentence fragments articulating that abruptness, identifying and propelling the colloquial speaking voice. Barker’s use of long lines to explore her own family history in Gloss was prefigured by their use in a prior book, One Blackbird at a Time, a wonderful collection focused on her experience as a teacher. Curious, isn’t it, how so many poets, as they get older and their experiences accumulate, pivot toward long-lined verse? In her case, as both Blackbird and Gloss so amply illustrate, she never had to pivot; her comfort with, and mastery of, the long line makes of her the pivot point for others.
Second, and for this reader one of the most impressive aspects of Gloss, is the way Barker structures it, using the recurrent image of a tureen as a motif/symbol, and those little italicized Li Po-like poem transitions/connectors throughout the book. Most of the latter present water imagery, whether spring, pool or river, establishing and keeping focused the theme of the past flowing constantly across time into the present, shaping and reshaping the human continuously:
a man in a boat
moves upstream toward
mountains—mist, with his
thin back bent, as he
faces the water
that flows from the hills
to the downstream pool
where he casts his thread-
slender line, alone.
(“On the Chinese Scroll”)
And in “Bird Songs” verse sections alternate between the myth of Procne and Philomela and her mother’s sewing, in the last section the two entwining, like threads through a needle, much like the silver tureen in which the various ingredients of a soup combine — that symbol of the past and present, the successive generations and their current heirs, all converging in a future yet to unfold:
Even smothered, a story won’t die. Centuries, characters shift, but not the plot. How you know and you don’t know. Enough for now to say … No nightingales in our country, but oh, the swallows, nesting, safe among the wooden bones, timbers of an old, old house.
Third, and most impressive of all, is the way Barker varies the form of each poem to reflect its subject. For example, in “What Surfaces,” her use of varied and extreme indentations of the lines layers the poem, like the geologic layering of the earth she describes:
Arriving at the Grand Canyon,
we’ve all peered down at those
dozens of rock layers—granite, dolomite, sandstone, shale, basalt—
formed two million, maybe two billion
In “The RMS Queen Mary,” the solidity of the two-section division she chose reflects the ship she is describing, one solid deck above the other. In “Treading the Boards,” its one boxy stanza mirrors perhaps the proscenium stage her great grandmother performed on “after she’d been respectable, after her husband died of drink/ leaving her penniless with four little ones.” In several poems, she uses long, alternating indentations, like the flow of memory across time.
Long lines, a structure organized by a recurrent image and short italicized poems, a supple variation of form that makes manifest the subject — these establish Barker’s skill with and mastery of the long-lined prose poem. Finally, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t say how moving, even shocking and revealing, the family narrative she presents is, and how sometimes complexly comedic. To channel one of the blurbs, I, too, am amazed at how she manages to weight the poems again and again with details, even the technical — like, for instance, sewing —without ever losing control of the narrative pulse.
I know Gloss was a labor of love, and probably even difficult for Barker at times, but her artistry is there for all to see. Bravo!