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-
barn-red-off-centre
timber shed

trumpeting
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.

The weight words carry: Napoleon’s Road’s by David Brooks

I read Napoleon’s Roads, Australian writer David Brooks’ most recent collection of short fiction, as I made my way to Australia a little over a month ago. Looking back through the pages of this book to gather my thoughts to write these words, certain adjectives keep floating through my mind: shimmering, translucent, affecting, reflective, wise. There are sixteen tales here, written over a span of nearly twenty years: fragmented journeys, fables, and allegories that slip through the contemporary “real” world, wander imaginary landscapes, and explore the inner realms of the heart and mind. Taken as a whole, these stories reflect a few key themes, rather like light refracted through a multi-faceted crystal—ideas moving outward, layered and recombined to create a series of experiences that make for a most satisfying travel companion.

His prelude, “Paths to the City,” sets the tone, asking:

Why do we write? What are we groping for? Are words able to penetrate the night? Are they able to go down the road we only half recall, along which we see only our own back receding in a heat-shimmer of memory? Can they truly take paths we have not ourselves taken? Bring back the lost? Such weights they carry, these things that arrive as if unbidden, or that sometimes we think we summon from nowhere, you would think they were beasts of burden, each line a caravan, setting out by moonlight over pale trackless sand, guided by half-forgotten stars.

 What we can know, what we can say about what we know, and what is better left unknown, are questions that surface, explicitly and implicitly, throughout this collection. Brooks allows for gaps and spaces in his narratives, reinforced by the sharp, broken, fragmented style of many of the pieces. There is an evanescent quality that lingers, leaving a sense that many of the stories cannot be rewound and retold for fear of crushing them under the weight of pedantic description.

Many of his stories have a fable-like quality. There are echoes of Calvino, Borges, Kafka. But some of the most interesting pieces are multi-leveled meditations that spin out from a central subject in a sequence of fragmented reflections. The title story takes the long, straight tree-lined roads constructed in the French countryside under Napoleon. The narrator travels along these roads with his daughter, his account framed and interrupted by reflections on the history of the roads, their relation to the landscape, and memories from his own past. At one point he asks, “How to say that these roads are about what is not road, this text is about what it is not?” This a is a sentiment that resurfaces again and again—how much of any one of these stories is about what it is not?

The same fragmentary form is used to powerful effect in “Kabul.” The city the narrator is in exists in the past and the present at once. It is a place of horror and violence. It is the people he encounters. It is more:

It is not always the body, not only. Kabul is within us, but it is also a landscape of the days, a positive to their negatives, a trace. Weeks marked by craters, explosions of shells. Months marked by lies and betrayal. A field of engagements, tracks leading inland. (There, on those ridges, a hide-out. And if you could get to it, a view of the city. The minarets, the domes, convoys in or out. The land dry. The puffs of smoke where the shells hit. Or in winter, when it is covered with snow …)

In a series of single paragraphs, set apart by font and font size, a multi-dimensional, experiential vision of a city under siege is constructed.

Cityscapes are important. The allegorical story “A.” is an guide to the City, as an ideal and a real destination, a place we are ever moving towards—borne of our memories and our dreams: “… A. is distinctive, also entirely one’s own.” Calling to mind Calvino’s Invisible Cities, A. is “a different city for everyone who reaches it, a different memory for everyone who leaves it.” In the hauntingly beautiful “The Dead,” an angelic experience of the City is imagined. Wandering the streets, the angels visit the City of the Dead and the City of the Ruin, but again, the negative is evoked:

The City is what the City was. If we are taught to see by the stories we see or hear or read, if our vision is always the product of texts – the texts we have seen, and those seen by those who have written what we have seen – then the City that is is a hole, an absence, a possibility, beyond us as we ourselves are, as our friends are, our lovers. An edge which we think we glimpse through accident, irruption, exposure.

Reflections on time, memory, and loss also reverberate through this collection. The fragmentary piece “Grief” is the story of the death of an old woman, a relative of the narrator’s partner. It’s about the pain of losing a loved one. And, because grief has its strange trajectories, it’s also about a cat that keeps entering the narrator’s thoughts. The fractured narrative captures the disjointed experiences, hitting, at moments, the raw essence of grief:

A nausea perhaps. The overwhelming weight of being. But also something more, surely. The heart was wrenched, as if something had prised it open. The opposite of nausea. Not closed in by things, but offered them, in their depth. Or drawn by them, rushed into them. As if one were being sucked out of oneself. A force. A kind of gravity. The cat at its centre, there in the boot-room.

An entirely different mood is evoked in “Lost Pages,” a wonderful piece that employs a wide range of fonts and formats to play out a writer’s fear of losing those middle-of-the-night ideas, the hastily recorded texts, the unbacked-up electronic musings, and the memories that aging brain cells can no longer contain. There is unlikely to be a writer who can’t relate.

If, at the outset, Brooks asks why we write and questions the power of words, he comes at an answer most directly in the penultimate piece in this collection: “A Traveller’s Tale.” The writer who is about to begin a long story is, he suggests, akin to someone setting off on a voyage. The preparatory measures one would take for a journey and the nervousness that one feels about the uncertainties ahead are played out as the writer sits down with pen and paper or computer. And, although the technicalities of this preparation are typically removed from the finished narrative (except in this case, the one we are reading), the nervousness cannot be entirely erased because the journey, the journey of the storyteller, is too important, the heart too involved:

And when I say the heart, of course, I’m not sure that I’ll be understood – well, no, what I mean to say is that, to be understood, I feel I need to explain that what I have in mind when I say the heart is a very durable thing that stretched over a whole lifetime, that is one of the most stressed and yet most constant, toughest, most durable organs of the body; the heart that has to get up in the morning and take up the often heavy – often very heavy, often too heavy – burden of being, let’s call it, and carry it, somehow, to the day’s other end.

As he goes on to examine the emotional challenges of the journey, from the beginning of a story to the ending, he will touch at the heart of what words, memories and experience—the tools the writer must rely on—can accomplish. The nervousness is never resolved, and, he decides, the tale he is trying to tell is untellable.

But that can’t be the end. After all, there are fifteen other rich and varied tales that prove him wrong. Brooks is a consummate storyteller. Perhaps it’s all that nervous energy that makes his stories shimmer.