Sunday, April 8, 2018

Walter Bargen's "Natural History" plus @SScottWhitaker's review of Trouble Behind Glass Doors #Poemaday #NationalPoetryMonth

Natural History
There’s no hurry to our staring.
There’s nothing we can do to change
what we see even as we slowly maneuver
our stiff bodies along this hallway.
Craning our necks, we look into a too low sky
and its fading painted clouds. We drop
out chins to look down as if we might charge
ahead into the glass and find ourselves inside
or out, but we won’t know the difference.
We count the sparse weed stalks within these four
tight corners and move cautiously closer,
nose nearly to the smudged pane, trying to bend
our sight, defy our seeing, parse our hope,
our belief, with a simulacrum of understanding
how this bird’s crown feathers remain motionless.
Wings cup the air, as it hovers and doesn’t hover
over an insect that will never move,
never be caught, just as the bird will never alert us
to its presence, tethered to this one pose,  
wired to this country of our beautiful blindness.

Walter Bargen has published eighteen books of poetry.  His most recent books are: Days Like This Are Necessary: New & Selected Poems (2009), Endearing Ruins (2012), Trouble Behind Glass Doors (2013), Quixotic (2014), and Gone West (2014).  He was appointed the first poet laureate of Missouri (2008-2009).  His awards include a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship (1991), the Hanks Prize (1996), the William Rockhill Nelson Award (2005). His poems, essays, and stories have appeared in over 150 magazines.

--from the archives of The Broadkill Review
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Also from the archives:

A review of Walter Bargen's Trouble Behind Glass Doors.

Walter Bargen is watching. In the Missouri Poet Laureate's newest book Trouble Behind Glass Doors $13.95 University of Missouri-Kansas Press, Bargen crafts poems out of negative space, recording what is not happening as well as what is occurring in small towns and personal lives alike. Whether Bargen wears his laurel like a poet of a small town parade or the harbinger of the end of the world, Bargen’s work shapes a world where human interaction is held together by inaction and action, and it is the tension between the two that gives Trouble its emotional punch.

Trouble is a well oiled machine of language. It opens with three epigrams concerning hope, framing the theme for the three sections of Trouble. Paul, from Romans, gives us a message of patience and hope, Baudelaire warns that hope and desolation go hand in hand, and Kafka states that “hope is not for us.” And Trouble delivers as promised. It’s a work that grows darker by the poem, and one can feel the cold terminator of night marching across the wide open spaces of the Midwest.  

Section one finds the poet as an outsider/laborer; whether speaking as a working artist, or speaking for those who feel outside the norm, Bargen’s verse reminds that slow mundane work frees as well as fetters. Consider the opening poem “Dyslexic Forest” where the disinterested and disenfranchised student “falls asleep in class,” but yet is aware of the mystic way his writer/neighbor “reads to the stones” and “calls to the clairvoyant moon.”  The student knows how the writer’s work is a noisy affair, and class, he almost smirks, is a boring place, quiet and full of un-work, the un-imagination. What the boy does not say, but is shown in Bargen’s poetic narrative, is that work of the mind can be a magical experience for those uninitiated. The boy learns much from listening to the poet across the hollow, and not so much from school. In “Forest” the writer is a lonely illumined soul, a common motif in literature from ancient Greek poetry to the prose of Stephen King; the very forest of words a writer tends must appear to be a vast wilderness to those who struggle with words and ideas. There is a connection though between the boy in the forest and the writer, albeit a tenuous one, just as there is connection between the poet and the small town in which he lives and serves as a parade marshall in “Poet as Grand Marshall of the Fall Parade.” The poet works through anxiety over being lauded in the parade, but when the poet “passed out poems once the candy ran out” the gulf between the artist and people has never been wider. Candy is certainly better than poetry, and after all the poet is not a football player, nor a cheerleader, and the part of his body that he offers up to the fall parade is not as strong nor as lithe, but is as important even if it is unseen; his mind. The poet is fettered to his work as he is freed by it, and it is this tension that gives the first section power and punch. But the theme of writer/outsider is most crystallized in the haunting “Poet in Prison” where the speaker passes through the gates of the prison, section by section, on his way to a creative writing class for those inside. Nowhere else is the poet more aware of the differences between himself and the harsh world. America imprisons more citizens than any other nation in the world, and probably boasts more poets as well. The descent into the prison is as close as the modern poet will ever achieve to Orpheus descending into the underworld, and just as important. But Bargen doesn’t preach or pat himself on the back, he instead shows us the lonely, the unwanted as they are.

Loneliness and disconnection haunt the first section of the book, but age, dying, and finality haunt the second section of the book. It begins innocently enough in “The Whole Facts” as car parts lay strewn across a yard, but through the poet’s imagination they are transformed into body parts from a war. But for the speaker the experience is a reminder of life, of hope, despite the violence the imagination recalls.

The second section of Trouble finds death hanging about, an old friend calling who will soon die, an obese stroke victim, a poor deluded Don Quixote, almost bare of hope save for his chance to be “knighted and benighted each Friday midnight/at the Thirsty Turtle and Gladstone Bar & Grill.”  But it’s not just death, or the end of our greatness that Bargen explores. The promise of the end to intimacy and friendship, as well as the promise of death is evocatively explored in “Point of No Returns.” Here the speaker presents us with a relationship with two people who are “propelled and repelled/by each other’s presence,” a relationship that has reached a point of no return,  “there was no point in us/ever knowing why we were not lovers/and will always be doubtful lovers.” Here the tension is as much about the promise of what is to come, as it is about the past, about what is about to happen and about may not happen. Sensuality, and eroticism carried special weight when we speak of desire. It is no accident that the French call the orgasm the little death, for desire burns out just like a life. That promise of finality all wrapped up with desire continues in “Blouse,” which could be a companion poem to Robert Pinsky’s “Shirt,” where Bargen’s music is as tight as that which is “stitching the chapters of a lonely woman together... Premonition of coming clawed critics./The fourteen to forty crowd who spills midriffs/And cinch bulging thighs with zippered denim...their dislike, disdain disturbingly/Uncivilized.” But the promise in “Blouse” isn’t as hopeful or mysterious as the promise of a sexual liaison in “Point,” it’s a slippery promise , one that proffers that a piece of clothing, or a kind word can transform us, pick us up out of the doldrums, and put us upright, make us feel young and desirable. Bargen shows it fails more often than not.

The dying and finality of section two hardens into death and cruelty by the third section where Bargen’s poems show us war, the end times, when neighbor turns upon neighbor.

It’s not often that murder is made poetic in American letters. It’s there to be sure, consider Larry Levis’ murderous thieves from Elegy, Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel”, Frank Bidart’s psychopathic “Herbert White,” or Martin Espada’s cruel racists. Bargen’s disturbing “Neighbors” belongs right down in hell with them,  and finds the poet employing crisp lines and stanzas to mimic the blade crossing a throat, and the containment of the camps. At one point the protagonist of the poem has been roused from his house by a ski-mask wearing neighbor turned enemy, who marshaled him into a internment camp to begin his new life. He witnesses the horror, and Bargen’s lines might as well be a rag wiping the blade. “They sleep standing shoulder to shoulder,/Through a crack in the shed wall he sees/Neighbors strip a neighbor with long hunting knives/Then cut off a pound of he bleeds away, the body doused/with gasoline, this man’s life and his own are aflame.”

War, and foreign conflict are the subject of many of the poems in the final section, as well as a fervor for the apocalypse, but the themes are present in the poems that are not explicitly about war and cruelty.  In “Booneville Bridge Demolition” all of the small folk, lovers, children, and small town witnesses live and love and gather in the shadow of the demolition that is to come, and that ultimately waits for us all. Destroying a bridge could as easily be an act of war as it is about civil service in the name of public safety, or a metaphor for destroying those we love while we are in the throes of emotional turmoil. “It could easily be a holiday celebration...but for the ripping and much giving way...after many years of holding up both sides...the unbridgeable..the aftermath of all their crossings uncrossed.” And this is how Bargen leaves us, bereft of structure to hold us together, bereft of decency, yet still hoping, spending all of our luck on what may or may not be there anymore.

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