Idly tossing stones: Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes

Although I’ve never been a stranger to poetry, I have read (and acquired) more this year than ever before. I have even, cautiously, attempted to write about some of the shorter collections that have resonated with me most strongly. However, whereas the more I read, the easier it is to articulate why some books—even a couple of those by the celebrated young poetic stars of the day—fail to win me over, I am often at a loss to write with confidence about the collections that draw me in, hold my attention, and continue to call me back.

If there’s a moment when the proverb that likens offering unjustified criticism to throwing stones seems especially apt, I can’t think of a better one than this: my attempt to gather my thoughts about Glasshouses by Australian poet, Stuart Barnes. And yes, I know I am twisting the intent of the original wisdom, but I am slowly learning enough about poetry to be increasingly aware of what I don’t know.

I read this book through, listening to the rhythms, enjoying the wealth of rural and natural imagery, the sensitivity to the nuances of familial and intimate relationships, and the recognizable cultural references. And then I hit the detailed Notes at the end of the book and discovered what a cento is (a patchwork of lines taken from the work of other poets), and learned that some of the poems sample or rework other texts, or incorporate very specific structures and form. Tony Messenger’s interview with Barnes further confirmed my suspicion that I was missing entire levels of structural significance and poetic discipline; an awareness that is at once exciting and intimidating.

If one stops at superficial impact is that enough? What does it mean to enjoy a poem? If a line that catches me short in a cento actually originates from another work, who owns the power? The poet who crystalized the image, or the poet who re-envisions it, a jewel among other salvaged (and fully credited) jewels? Or—and I should hope this is correct—both but in different ways?

At the same time, returning to the closing poem in the collection, “Double Acrostic,” one of my favourites, after taking a moment to refresh my memory (again) about what an acrostic poem is (words or names are spelled out through the first—and if double, last—letters of each line), I found it thrilling to re-experience the poem on two levels, appreciating the beauty and the precision of the language anew.

For the novice poetry critic like myself, Glasshouses is a luminous example of what can be done within an array of poetic forms. Barnes openly takes rhythm and inspiration from his mentors, his favourite music, and from the application of specific limits. As he admits in the interview linked above:

I adore writing in form, be it fixed or one I’ve altered or one I’ve conceived; when writing in form I feel as if I’m at my most creative; I feel liberated, not constrained.

But, of course, the true test is, do his poems work for the casual reader? I would be inclined to think that form, if it is effective, should function beneath the surface—neither obvious nor necessary for the enjoyment of the piece. After all is there only one way to understand a poem? Poetry is, ideally, not written from the top down. A poem is not an intentional exercise to illustrate the universal by forcing specific images and allusions; the poet enters the process of writing to see where it takes him or her, and the reader has to feel comfortable to do the same.

Or perhaps I am tossing stones after all.

And so, to the reading. Glasshouses is a collection that feels intensely intimate and personal, in the sense that Barnes seems to be engaging directly with his reader, sharing his love of the poets who have guided him, directly or through his careful reading, drawing inspiration from his family and from his own experience as a gay man, and openly riffing on the influence of music and pop culture. The wide range of voices that emerge, together with the variety afforded by his delight in structure and form, allows for a reading experience that never falls into tired and predictable patterns. There are misted melancholic pieces, and poems that explode in loud, energetic bursts. In short, this collection is so much fun to read that I can easily imagine myself returning to its pages again and again.

Yet, within the limitations of this brief review/reflection, it’s impossible to offer more than a glance at a poem or two. Many cannot be reproduced because they are printed in landscape format, are shaped, or employ unusual fonts for emphasis and impact. Otherwise, it is difficult to zero in on any one representative example. For me, at this point in my life, I found the translucent beauty of a series of in memoriam poems to be especially powerful—“eggshells” and “colour wheel” in particular. The latter (i.m. Mervyn Barnes) begins:

The American-
timber shed

through blood &
bone the glasshouse’s
yellow stars

the front yard’s statue-
sque rooster
screaming blue
murder till blue

in the face
Bay of Fires’
orange lichen,
zinc-creamed lips…

However, since I began with an allusion to a proverb, it seems fitting to close with a taste of “Proverbs”—a playful literary take on proverbial witticisms:

A fish always stinks from the elegy down.
Hell hath no fury like a metaphor scorned.
The senryū does not change its spots.
You can’t get blood out of a trope.

Love of the couplet’s the root of all evil.
Procrastination’s the thief of metre.
Nothing is certain but stress and narrative.
The darkest stanza’s before the dawn.

Ah, yes, but fortunately I have a copy of Glasshouses to wake up to.

Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes is published by University of Queensland Press.