Monday, May 27, 2013

Catherine Barnett's "The Game of Boxes"

Of Catherine Barnett's James Laughlin Award-winning book, April Bernard, one of the three judges, wrote, "With subtle and cumulative force, The Games of Boxes builds a complex poetic structure in which fundamental questions about motherhood, trust, eroticism, and spiritual meaning are posed and then set in motion in relation to one another."

There is a danger here of mistaking mere repetition for "cumulative force," for what is most obvious in reading this collection is the limited range of poetic resources on display. The plainspoken voice can only carry a reader's interest so far. There are few striking details, and no original images. The versification is unexciting; it provides no resistance against the speaker. The endings of poems too often rely on the echo of a word in a different sense.

Titling the first-person plural pronoun poems "Chorus" does not by itself build "a complex poetic structure." One such "Chorus" reads:

Whoever's calling keeps hanging up, he
won't leave a message--
so we brush the television, watch our teeth,
and pretend to go to bed,
listening for ringtones in our heads--

This is barren of invention. How could it have passed muster unless it was seen as a stone in "a complex poetic structure." To build an arch, every stone must be sound and play its part. Here, the "structure" is used to justify not one or two crummy stones, but a field of them.

The second danger is to mistake simplicity for what is "fundamental." The sequence in the middle of the book is described in the back blurb by Ilya Kaminsky as "the best love sequence yet given to the English language from poets of our generation." That bold claim cannot be sustained by any reading of the sequence. After twenty-three segments of vague, generalized emotions, the sequence ends with this:

Then he whispers there, there, as if I were a child
and not a woman lying beside him 
but what's wrong with that
it's late 
death's hovering like the cap
hanging from the doorknob 
he takes in hand
when he goes 
where never has anyone
left so quietly 
disentangling the desires of one
from the desires of another. 
Is life like that?
How I slept then.

The cap--to hang from a doorknob is not to hover. "disentangling the desires of one / from the desires of another"--is that the most imaginative way to describe a break-up? The plaintive question "Is life like that?" is simple-minded.

I made a mistake--there is one poem in the collection that is fully alive. In the "Chorus" that begins with the line "We didn't believe an elephant could squeeze into church," Barnett performs an imaginative twist on the saying about the elephant in the room. The comparison of the elephant in the doorway to "a curtain of light, swaying from side to side" is exact and surprising. In just 14 lines, the poem presents "subtle and cumulative force."

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