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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tom Sleigh on Dick Barnes's A Word Like Fire: “virtuosic, tactful, and intelligent”

Tom Sleigh, whose eighth book of poems, Army Cats, has just been published, joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry to call attention to “one of the most interesting and ravishing achievements of the past half century.”

The word "genius" can taint overnight. But Dick Barnes has written poems of such fresh perception, intelligence, and spoken vitality that it would be timid, or worse, stupid—to hedge. As far as I know, in his lifetime he won no prizes (he died in 2000), received no accolades, and published his poems with small presses where he could.

I came across his posthumously published selected poems, A Word Like Fire, in a used bookstore four years ago when a jacket comment by David Ferry—one of our absolute best poets, original and strange in ways that Barnes shares—brought his work to my attention. Outside of California, he's virtually unknown—and not all that well known in his home state either. For the California Barnes writes about with such passionate sympathy is the rural California kind. And when I say rural, I don't mean the quasi-suburban Big Sur/Humboldt County, Zen/Ananda Commune/Beat kind of rural. I mean truly rural—the north of LA ranching/farming/trapping/hunting/heavy-equipment-operating kind around Barstow and Needles, the chaparral desert kind of the San Bernardino Mountains and the Mojave Desert.

By locating him in this milieu, don't think for a moment that he's one of those tough-guy sentimental, self-consciously countrified poets who thrive on local color. His complex relation to his community of ranchers, trappers, farmers, ne'er-do-wells, and intellectual misfits is nuanced in the way that Chekhov in his best short stories is nuanced. No one has written a more perceptive, and humanely considered poem about what used to be called "a renegade," Willie Boy, a young Paiute man who in 1909 was the subject of a massive manhunt. The poem negotiates white and Native American sensitivities with a preternatural feel for the racial, cultural and moral unintelligibility of the two communities to each other:

If you were a young Paiute in 1905, and got arrested
for drunken disturbance of the Anglo peace
and the sheriff took your picture in the county jail,
you'd look okay—you'd look about the way Willie Boy did
inward during adversity, solitary, brave enough;
but if I were a young Paiute in 1909, and wished somehow
to alleviate solitude, and tried to become intelligible,
got a white shirt with sleeve garters, a necktie
with polkadots, a pretty good hat, and even a fountain pen,
then went to a photographer in Banning and paid him
to take my picture, I'd have that blank mad hopeless look,
an expression you see now and then on an outlaw horse,
fierce but drawn back, my eyes the wrong side out.
It's the look of a man who knows nobody sees things his way,
whatever wavering way that might be—knows, and can't say.
Come down the dry side of the mountain, you get into
      juniper and piñon pine
then at a certain elevation you see a lone greasewood or Joshua
among the granite boulders—what is there to say about that.
Maybe it was a woman made him feel that way—
      not that she willed it
but it was his reaction. Let him go, then, let him kill to get her
then kill her too when she can't keep pace in flight over the desert;
hounded down let him shoot three horses from under the posse
but hit one of the men, a white man, in dismay—
that won't make him intelligible . . .

The moral complexity of his stance, in which he both identifies with Willie Boy, but never oversteps the bounds of that sympathy, is as virtuosic, tactful, and intelligent as Henry James. And as I said, his frame of reference isn't limited to this kind of character study. Though obviously no Mandarin in his attitudes, other poems range with complete ease through Old English and Renaissance literature, as well as displaying a deep knowledge of biology, astrophysics, and classical Chinese poetry: Barnes sees the world through an astonishing variety of lenses.

In referring more to prose writers like Chekhov and James than to poets, I want to stress that his poems are dense with lived experience, adult dilemmas, and what Yeats once called "the fury and mire of human veins." His immersion in his subjects makes most poetry look a little thin. Plainspoken, spare, his poems are immensely readable: their spiritual and ethical complexities may or may not resolve, but his language and syntax is always precise, complicated when it needs to be. The syntactic sweep, and recursive qualifications of "Willie Boy," especially in the last nine lines quoted above, demonstrate an uncanny knack for anticipating a reader's qualms about the speaker's shifting stance toward such material. And never does Barnes try to elide his own moral and spiritual difficulties by pretending that verbal murk and blur equal profundity. Barnes's verbal integrity is of a piece with his great tact toward the reader and his subjects, and his ability to see many different sides of existence at once.

With "drunken disturbance of the Anglo peace," in the second line of the excerpt above, Barnes takes a rote phrase, "disturbance of the peace," and through his intonation twists it into a subtle "screw you" to the Anglo community's sense of "law and order." And in the next few lines, his casual tone modulates into plain-spoken eloquence. The colloquial ease of "okay" and "you'd look about the way Willie Boy did," suddenly torques into a psychological insight wholly unexpected, both for its penetration, its sudden rigorous formality, and the unsentimental clarity that "brave enough" implies. And what's most impressive is how Barnes is careful to put this guess at Willie's character into the second person—the poet tactfully distinguishes between Willie and his projections onto Willie. And in that gesture, he aligns himself against the Anglo community that could care less about Willie's inner life just as long as he doesn't turn up drunk in the streets. Very few poets can pull off these lightning quick shifts of diction, viewpoint, and imaginative sympathy, and make them seem totally natural. I'm tempted to say that Barnes's poetry, for all its apparent modesty of means, is one of the most interesting and ravishing achievements of the past half century.

About Tom Sleigh’s poems Seamus Heaney has written: “Tom Sleigh’s poetry is hard-earned and well founded. I greatly admire the way it refuses to cut emotional corners and yet achieves a sense of lyric absolution.” Sleigh’s first book After One (1983) won the Houghton Mifflin New Poetry Series Prize. Reviewing his second book Waking (1990) in The New York Times Book Review, Liz Rosenberg wrote, “[Tom Sleigh] has the precision of a diamond cutter, yet his work is often surrealistic, dreamlike . . . [he] is nearly as prodigal with his gifts as Yeats, and a mythic quality enters into everyday gestures in his poems.” His last collection Space Walk (2007) won the Kingsley Tufts Award (a $100,000 prize). In 2011 Sleigh became the first recipient of the John Updike Award, a new prize established by Mrs. John Updike and given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters to a writer “in mid-career who has demonstrated consistent excellence.” Sleigh is currently director of the Hunter College Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing, where he also teaches poetry writing.

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Excerpt of “Willie Boy” from A Word Like Fire: Selected Poems by Dick Barnes (2005). Copyright © 2005 by Patricia Barnes. Reprinted by permission of Handsel Books (an imprint of Other Press).

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