"This Side of the River"
An Annual Review of Books from West Branch Contributors
Like an Oar Into the Darkness
The Black Ocean, by Brian Barker. Southern Illinois University Press, 80 pp., $15.95.
Stateside, by Jehanne Dubrow. TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University Press, 72 pp., $16.95.
The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home, by Janice Harrington. BOA Editions, 80 pp., $16.00.
Mule, by Shane McCrae. Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 72 pp., $15.95.
March 2012 marked the passing of the unapologetic political poet Adrienne Rich. For more than half a century, Rich made a career of advocating for the marginalized by shaping language on the page. Her aesthetic journey was one of reinvention: after abandoning the rigorous metrical structures of her early poems, Rich adopted increasingly radical forms in order to better advocate for the disenfranchised. Critic Jay Parini once characterized her writing as "bright shards of thought and feeling held in loose communion by an overarching, frequently angry voice." More than anger what resonates for me is Rich's urgency—her steadfast commitment to the utterance of truth. Whether what triggers any one of Rich's poems is rage or hope, grief or remorse, what Rich teaches us by example is articulation as a willful act, as well as the courage of voicing what has otherwise gone voiceless. "Every real poem is the breaking of existing silence," Rich asserts in Arts of the Possible, "and the first question we might ask any poem is, 'What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?'"
What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken? I ask such questions of the four collections reviewed here, collections by poets who are concerned, like Rich, with how the intersection of the personal and political engenders human dignity. While the aesthetics of Stateside, Mule, The Hands of Strangers, and The Black Ocean vary wildly—in fact, their differences are reminiscent of Rich's own evolution from well-mannered formalist to purveyor of often fragmented and irregularly lineated free verse—their contents share a commitment that Rich advocates: that is, the shattering of a particular kind of silence. While it's impossible to know whether the poets under review regard Rich's work with admiration or resistance, I do recognize each of them in Rich's An Atlas of a Difficult World. I see Jehanne Dubrow, whose Stateside makes visible the complex existence of American military wives, reading Rich's "poem by the light / of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide / ... wait[ing] for the newscast from the intifada." I imagine Shane McCrae, whose Mule articulates the epithalamion's darker underside and generates fragmented lyrics for an autistic son, "listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope." The nursing home patients in Janice Harrington's The Hands of Strangers are reading "through ... failing sight, the thick / lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet [they] read on / because even the alphabet is precious." Finally, I recognize the historical figures in Brian Barker's The Black Ocean, as well as the collection's young lovers teetering on some apocalyptic brink, turning to Rich's poetry because "there is nothing else left to read / there where [they] have landed, stripped as [they] are."
In fact, the women, children, and men who populate Stateside, Mule, The Hands of Strangers, and The Black Ocean are very much, as Rich describes, "stripped." In unique ways, they are marginalized or inhabit emotional states that might be characterized as "on the fringes." Thanks to the authors of the respective collections, however, their voices rise through a register of commonality that "with no extraordinary power" manages somehow, as Rich suggests in The Dream of a Common Language to "reconstitute the world."
Poems portraying battle scenes and the aftereffects of war have a long literary history, but less usual in verse are depictions of domestic casualties; in particular, those conflicts and pressures faced by women whose spouses are deployed overseas by the armed services. While many contemporary poets have invoked Homer's ever-faithful Penelope (writing by Linda Pastan, Louise Glück, and Jorie Graham springs to mind), Jehanne Dubrow's Stateside puts a current spin on Odysseus's iconic spouse by casting her as a modern military wife. Rather than staging her in a traditional setting at the loom, Stateside follows a lonesome Penelope down the aisles of the PX (a store available exclusively to military families) as she shops "for bras / and lacy thongs ... // black garters, bustiers, a cream / ... a self-help book for self-esteem" ("Penelope, Stateside"). Readers also observe Penelope as she contemplates a new haircut, becomes embarrassed by her toddler's temper-tantrum ("At the Mall with Telemachus"), and experiments with yo-yo dieting. Taken together, these scenarios underscore the daily routines of military wives left stateside to fend for their children and themselves all the while combating sexual frustration, isolation, and the difficulty of single-handedly managing household responsibilities.
While the Penelope poems are playful and often clever, Stateside truly shines when Dubrow confronts how months and even years of uncertainty, separation, and reconciliation impact military marriages. Many of Stateside's most vulnerable (and emotionally arresting) moments arrive via first-person sonnets scattered throughout the collection's three sections. These loosely narrative segments trace the arc of deployment, including the days leading up to departure, followed by a period of prolonged absence, and then reunion. Like many of the poems that appropriate military terminology in order to create psychological emphasis ("Secure for Sea" and "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," for example), "Nonessential Equipment" makes frank where wives fall in the order of military valuables. Among the first items discarded by a Naval officer about to ship out to sea? "The dog and I," writes Dubrow, whose catalogue is more about emotional trauma and feelings of abandonment than it is about organizing necessities for her husband's international departure. Emotional subtext aside, the literal task of "Nonessential Equipment" is making the sailor as buoyant as possible: "The seabag must be light enough to sling / across his shoulder, weigh almost nothing," the speaker explains, "each canvas pocket emptied of regret." Inevitably, Dubrow's spouse must discard not only his civilian clothes, but also his wedding ring—an act that pushes the sonnet toward its grave and final turn. It's in the last three lines that the speaker finally acknowledges that she's unsure of whether the pair's parting will be permanent: "The trick is packing less," she concedes, "No wife, no pet, / no perfumed letters dabbed with I-love-yous, / or anything he can't afford to lose."
While at the surface "Nonessential Equipment" is about what a military man can and can't carry abroad, a greater weight presses down on the couple and the poem; that is, the physical and emotional instability that arrives when a loved one goes off to war. Left behind, the speaker in Stateside imagines her husband starring in Hollywood films including The Fighting 69th, M*A*S*H, A Few Good Men and so on. Soon, her husband is in "... every ship blockade and battle scene": in one picture, he's burned alive; in another, he's shot or gassed. In yet a third scenario, he survives overseas duty but "shoots himself when he comes home again." Regardless of the actor or director, each film becomes "a training exercise, / a scenario for how my husband dies" ("Against War Movies"). The mil-spouse's psychological burden is further emphasized in "Situational Awareness," a sonnet in which Dubrow confesses "These past few weeks I'm more than just aware / of where he is—I'm hypersensitive, / stretched thin as a length of wire, a hair— / trigger mechanism." Survival, however, can prove equally as frightening: after months of deployment leaves the couple "stretched / nearly to the breaking," "Stateside" finally reunites them. What begins, however, isn't blissful reconciliation, but a precarious period of readjustment. "We almost don't belong // inside the same time zone, / much less this house," confesses Dubrow, who goes on to characterize the depth of estrangement:
instead of lover,
stateside instead of overseas.
I feel myself
withdrawing from his hand,
a touch I want
but barely understand.
What makes the final turn of "Stateside" so moving isn't just the sum of its parts—the degrees of emphasis earned via repetitive phrasing (spouse // instead of lover, / stateside instead of overseas"), end rhyme (his hand is ironically "understood" even as the speaker resists its touch), and metrical organization (the phrases "I feel myself" and "a touch I want" deliver a powerful sonic punch thanks, in part, to the isolation of paired iambs on a single line). The emotional rift is particularly impactful because throughout the book we've witnessed the couple's intimacy and affection in poems staged prior to the husband's departure.
"Assateague Island, March"—a blank verse narrative that sheds light on the pair's marriage before deployment—is perhaps the finest poem in Stateside. Here, Dubrow exploits form, setting, imagery, and plot with great effect. Situated on an island (enter again the ghost of Penelope) surrounded by wild horses and water, a husband and young wife on an overnight camping trip brave the elements in less than ideal conditions. The unknown (i.e. the unspoken fear of looming deployment) is everywhere: "I lie / awake ... curl myself into a question mark," admits the speaker. Not even the tide's repetitive lull serves a source of comfort as the wife listens "for hours, to the pace of waves / an irritant like sand inside a shoe." The poem's great irony, however, is the couple's lack of communication: although their erotic desire is shared, each assumes the other is fast asleep until the air between them becomes "a frozen wing." At daybreak, upon hearing her husband admit "I couldn't sleep at all ... / though you seemed fine," the speaker recognizes a lost opportunity for intimacy and fitfully declares, "Goddamn our domesticity." This pronouncement is powerful on many levels: it marks not only a surprising tonal shift as "Assateague" moves from description to declaration, but also introduces one of the poem's rare metrical substitutions; thus the sound system itself is as rebellious as what's uttered—its compressed compound stresses work hard to undermine the couple's polite and orderly (one can imagine the military link here) domestic state.
The metrical strategies Dubrow employs throughout Stateside work well to enact the discipline and repetition that comes with the military lifestyle. What's most successful, however, is the collection's fresh perspective on life inside the armed services. While readers are used to hearing soldiers recollect the gruesome details of war, Dubrow's poems depict quieter domestic battles that take place far from the combat zone. At stake: marriage, personal identity, emotional wellness. Breaking the silence of women expected to smile and fall in line during the long and difficult days of deployment, Dubrow gives voice to those military wives whose personal sacrifices often go unsaid. "No one / can deviate from others in a row," she writes of "Navy Housing," "How easily I lose myself out here." Yet, the willful act of articulating particular challenges faced by military wives serves as self-protection, a means of distinguishing one's voice amid the prescribed uniformity of those who occupy base houses decorated with "another flag, another garden gnome / another sign proclaiming HOME, SWEET HOME."
Home is neither sweet nor orderly in Shane McCrae's Mule, which charts the dissolution of a marriage, as well as the beauty and pain of raising a child with autism. Also under consideration throughout the collection are issues of biracial identity, religion, family history, illness, and violence. Much has been written about McCrae's subject matter in other reviews of his ambitious debut collection. What interests me more than Mule's thematic content, however, is its technical innovation. If some of the narrative tensions in Mule—domestic plots and investigations of complicated family dynamics—are familiar, the tactics McCrae employs to restage such tensions are anything but. Enacting the fragmented conditions of strained relationships, missed connections, and the peaks and valleys between human frustration and elation, the syntax and lineation in Mule reframe the way we see parenthood, individual identity, and divorce (common enough subjects in contemporary American poetry). Ultimately, in the case of Mule, it's not only a matter of which personal silences are being broken, but how those silences are being shattered across the page.
Whereas Dubrow's Stateside is a study in measured forms, her tightly constructed poems representative of marital order, McCrae explodes traditional structures and allows the white space between individual words and lines to speak volumes about splintered and often precarious emotional states. In "The Cardinal Is the Marriage Bird," one of Mule's many fractured epithalamiums, McCrae identifies pain and dissolution as faint attendants at a wedding ceremony. The poem begins brightly enough by characterizing for several stanzas the titular bird "in the sunlight on the snow." Although "The Cardinal Is the Marriage Bird" is fragmented, its primary images suggest illumination, purity, and clarity—all things expected of the epithalamium, a lyric poem blessing the bride and groom. A "flash of shadow" in the final stanza, however, foretells the pair's vulnerability and unveils the presence of darkness. This "flash of shadow" epitomizes McCrae's inclination toward quick emotional breaks, and transforms the cardinal from a symbol of optimism into one of impending despair:
... and the cardinal is the shadow bird / A flash of wound the wound
bird evergreen to evergreen
Wound leaping evergreen to evergreen / Imagine
welcoming the wound
"The Cardinal Is the Marriage Bird" is significant for many reasons, not the least of which are its surprising leaps and wrenching final epiphany. After circling the poem's titular image—that bright and vibrant marriage bird—we learn, at last, that the cardinal's color not only represents love, but also shades of injury. Most poignant is the fact that the excruciating "wound" (one the speaker will experience and investigate throughout the collection) is, in fact, initially courted and even ordained. Granted, during the exchange of marriage vows the speaker cannot see the relationship as anything but "evergreen." However, the counterturns staged via the final lines of "The Cardinal Is the Marriage Bird" make evident the couple's imminent demise.
"The Cardinal Is the Marriage Bird" also establishes a contract between Mule and its readers. The first poem of the book, its seventeen lines introduce several key patterns that recur throughout McCrae's collection: most significantly, quick imagistic shifts, interrupted action, and multiple forms of caesurae including inner-linear backslashes and tabbed white spaces that, taken together, orchestrate the abrupt stops punctuating bursts of thought or feeling. At times, McCrae exploits the above tactics to enact (among other subjects) memory's fallibility, mixed racial identity, romantic disintegration, and the devastation of Alzheimer's. He also uses the strategies to narrate the emotional distress of watching a child descend further and further into autism. Over many poems McCrae plots the evolution of the developmental disorder and how it impacts both parents individually, as well as their relationship with each other. In "[We married in his belly]," mother and father mourn their son's potential after failing to find some version of him "sometimes in the books / The Have-You-Seen-This-Child books." As the boy's struggles become a daily reality ("all night we / Read all night searching for our son"), the couple becomes more and more haunted by "[h]is ghost the son we had."
Inevitably, the parent's grief reaches a fever pitch. As if shadowing their son's developmental challenges, the couple's communication skills and nuptial bonds break down. "To love him just enough," writes McCrae in "Internal Horses," "to sit there watch- / ing not enough for us to stay together." Although their union can't be saved, Mule's fragmented verse reflects the steadfast relationship between parent and child. Here's "[We married in the front yard]" in its entirety:
We married in the front yard watch-
ing our son disappear our two-year-old
Son Nicholas we watched him disappear
Gesture by gesture word by word his au-
tism slowly erasing him he couldn't catch
A ball he could have caught the ball before
Forgot the word for ball we didn't know
Which mattered more the action or the word
Which disappearing part was more impor-
tant more our son which part to hold and which
Part to let go we said the word and rolled
The ball again we said the word and rolled
The ball we rolled the ball and we said catch
He held his arms out and embraced the air
Devastatingly beautiful, "[We married in the front yard]" represents McCrae at his best. Its complex structure begs us to question whether the poem is an epithalamium or shattered sonnet, personal narrative or elegy. In fact, it is all of these: borrowing strategies from disparate forms, "[We married in the front yard]" works brilliantly to enact the symptoms of autism, as well as the depths of its speakers' devotion and grief. Repetitive phrasing ("The ball again we said the ... word ... and rolled / The ball we rolled the ball and we said,") not only reflects the primary narrative action, but also the tendency of autistic children to engage in a restricted range of behaviors and habits. Suggested by the lines' elongated caesurae is a sense of ongoing erasure—the silence that accumulates as the child's verbal expresson becomes increasingly limited. Lacking punctuation, individual phrases collide ("Forgot the word for ball we didn't know") accentuating the loss of mastery and control exhibited by the child and felt by his parents.
"[We married in the front yard]" allows the reader to watch "gesture by gesture" as Nicolas disappears further into autism. The music that scores this action is fittingly steady: relentless as the disorder that pursues the child, the lines breathe and sing iamb, iamb, iamb. While a few metrical substitutions occur, the primary rhythms remain faithful to that of the traditional sonnet, ultimately reminding us that "[We married in the front yard]" is, in fact, a love poem—one that takes great care to underscore the unconditional devotion father and mother share for their son. This fidelity is perhaps the poem's greatest unspoken utterance. Furthermore, it acts as a powerful reminder that throughout the collection caesura—that elongated pause born of the lapses between thought and articulation—can carry not only great meaning, but feeling; paradoxically, in Mule it's silence itself that often sings.
Janice Harrington doesn't narrate the difficulties of failed nuptials, but those of failing minds and bodies—their "blue-milk skin, blue-veined / and blue bruised" ("Pietà"). Winding through nursing homes' sanitized rooms and hallways, The Hands of Strangers makes a study of women and men transformed by age until they no longer look "like their snapshots, / the days when they were young and jaunty, / with tapering calves and extraordinary hats / when someone's box camera surprised them" ("Old Photos"). The primarily narrative collection isn't only a memorial to the wards' ailing residents, however, but pays equal tribute to their bedside attendants: simultaneously an ode to labor and elegy for the elderly, one of the collection's primary tensions is the frailty of human dependence. Even as Harrington lyricizes the "soft ... soles of aides at night," she is careful not to romanticize the attendants' efforts. While "lifting waste and weight and waiting through / the hours till morn," for example, the workers remain utterly human and "weary for home" ("Wards of Sleep"). It's true that The Hands of Strangers acknowledges the compassion of "strangers" who spend a good portion of their lives changing bedpans and catheters, people who devote themselves to making certain that each of their residents is "cleaned / and dressed and moved and fed and watched / over" ("Protest"). Still, not every caregiver exhibits the same degree of commitment or integrity: the book's third section Rough Hands, for instance, depicts cases of professional neglect, brutality, and even sexual assault. Whether their acts within the confines of the nursing home are egregious or unwaveringly empathetic, what the aides share with those in their care is a deep exhaustion from bearing the physical and emotional burdens of aging.
Although The Hands of Strangers strives diligently to answer Rich's call for a poetry that advocates for the marginalized, no poem in the collection works harder than "May Engles" to give a voice to the otherwise silenced. At the forefront of Harrington's ode is an excerpt from an aide's diary entry: "May Engles died yesterday. No family, no friends, no possessions, just a room provided by the county, no pastor, no nurses, no anything. No book will ever give her a sentence." Answering this call to action, Harrington furnishes Engles with thirty-eight sentences (and a series of fragments) that energetically memorialize the woman at risk of vanishing altogether. Thanks to a Whitmanesque catalogue, Engles soon contains multitudes: among other things, she is scientific ("Let biologists name a newly discovered orchid May Engles, or a moth, or a deep-sea squid not seen since the Pliocene era"); daring and artistic ("May Engles plucked the feathers of the last Lord God Bird. She is the nude on the far right in Cézanne's Les Grandes Baigneuses"). May Engles is celestial ("Let astrologers re-name Orion's belt and call it May Engles' garter"). She is the living planet itself:
The water laps—May and May—against the shore. The earth
answers, and the wind, and the boy swinging his toes above the
dock, all with the same glad syllable: May and May and May.
May Engles is also the subject of a song sung by "black girls clap[ing] their hands" on "a playground in Alabama." She is proof of good health. Her name is an expression of erotic pleasure, as well as "small and plain and common" form toward which Harrington claims all poets should strive. May Engles is a symbol of hope and faith for "believers" who "see her face on mildewed wallpaper in a Day's Inn in Biloxi." She's equipped with the power to elongate the breath of life: whisper her name, instructs Harrington, and "Death will slow, and you will have a moment, and maybe—another moment—more."
As in the example of May Engles, what The Hands of Strangers gives its subjects are the gifts of time and acknowledgment. Harrington's collection also brings into light those so often relegated to shadowy existence between hospital beds and wheelchairs. It's true that the poet doesn't shy away from the ward's difficult facts and realities, making music of the "pus pit, grave pinch, / mattress canker, / Satan's ear,"—all of which inevitably become "a bed's blessing, / a bed's curse" ("Pressure Wounds"). Yet, The Hands of Strangers also makes clear that suffering ushers forth the possibility of redemption. Throughout the book, there's ample evidence of lives well-served and lived. There are accounts of "an old married couple, admitted together," one spouse whispering faithfully to the other after many decades "... Now, that's better isn't it? / That's my fella. That's my boy ..." ("The Way It Ends"). As the body breaks down, there are degrees of order, as evidenced by "the old women / good immigrant stock, / their slips as white as altar cloth starched / sharp enough to cut," their "plaited hair and braids wound / into labyrinths" ("White Slips"). Even within the brutal assault of dementia, Harrington reminds readers that there is the residue of imagination and color and song:
REALITY ORIENTATION THERAPY
To orient the elderly who may become confused, upon awakening them tell them the time of day, identify the nursing home, use their names and the name of the current president.
—Instruction for new aides
Scree! Scree! The starling's soliloquy. Was that this morning? No, starlings have no songs. They cough like old men. The bed is on fire. The starlings come bearing the news, metal voices—knives, forks. Is that my name? No one knows my hair was once the purple black of a starling's wing. A knife calls my name again. Precedent? Yes, there might be precedent, but it's only Monday. In the hallway, I see ten thousand starlings. Wings, wings, so bright everyone is blinded. See, the bed is on fire. My skin burns. The fork pokes the air again. The knife cuts. A present? The present? The fork has a lisp. But my hands are empty. My fingers unwrap the flames, unfold them. Inside there are wings. The fork wraps its prongs around my shoulders and lifts me, ignoring the flames, ignoring the wings. The knife repeats Scree! Scree! The starling's soliloquy—have they come to take me home?
The Hands of Strangers charts the final years of specific people—Roba and Alma, for instance, Patsy, and Ray—whereas The Black Ocean anticipates the final days of man. Haunting Brian Barker's ambitious second collection is a foreboding yet ambiguous presence, one that facilitates emotional tension because the book's exact circumstances are insinuated and not overtly shaped. A series of loosely connected lyrics suggests an apocalyptic event: there are love poems, visions, and nightmares dedicated to the "Last Night on Earth," as well as lines honoring "The Last Songbird." A pair of field recordings captures the voices of Billie Holiday and some unnamed "Machine." Between the "last night" poems Barker intersperses narratives featuring the ghosts of political and historical figures such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Edgar Allan Poe, and Cherokee warrior Dragging Canoe. Additional icons surface throughout The Black Ocean, as if following a script from the Book of Revelations. "Silent Montage with Late Reagan in Black and White," for example, which eroticizes its cinematographic elements ("He feels the boy take the lens of projector / into his mouth"), draws attention to the President's policies in the early days of AIDS, and contributes to the collection the presence of a plague. A great flood arrives via "Lost on the Lost Shores of New Orleans, They Dreamed Abraham Lincoln Was the Magician of the Great Divide." The two-part poem begins by recounting the federal government's official response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina:
In unison, the administration unknotted their ties
and rolled up their sleeves
and dismissed them into darkness
that was no longer darkness
but a state redefined as a temporary failure of light
In fact, the failure of light pervades The Black Ocean. Pressing against this darkness are manifestations of sound and song. Tapped in "Lost on the Lost Shores ..." as source of salvation ("He pulled his hand from his hat and held up / a canteen of cold water, a bullhorn, and birdsong"), not even Abraham Lincoln can rescue the residents of the ninth ward who pass "darkly" through the hole in the assassinated leader's head. Yet, even as they drown the President manages to revive
their voices, itinerant, laden with longing, a chorus lifted
high above the shadow of heaven, threading the star that guided them,
crying out again from the scalloped, far edge
of the swamp, the hem of a fever that would not break.
Their voices a chorus lifted and crying out—such is The Black Ocean's obsessive subject. In his six-part "A Brief Oral Account of Torture Pulled Down Out of the Wind," Barker archives the whispers of flies, walled-in speech, bursts of laughter, whimpering dogs, enemies wailing, political pledges, even the air itself as it "stops up the breath / like wading through static through a thousand broken voices." Thanks to its direct address the poem's opening section, "[What the Hood Whispers to the Head]," is intimate yet ambiguous: "friend I grow more alive with you each day," begins Barker, "I drink up your sweat your spit your tears." Such lines beg us to ask: to whom does the hood belong? Is it the executioner's? The hanged man's? A member of the KKK? Although Barker doesn't give the answer away, he makes evident the hood's eerie degrees of agency: throughout the poem, it thirsts, swallows, sees, touches, perceives. What's more, it's parasitic—feeding from the head on which it rests. "When you drown," it hisses
in the long keelhaul of electricity
I suck in your breath
that prickly chandelier of wind
shuddering from your throat
Evident in the above example is the fact that The Black Ocean embodies the sound systems to which it repeatedly refers: in other words, it not only gestures toward a range of sounds but also produces them in rich and varied ways. Consider here the music of plosives k and p in words such as keelhaul, electricity, suck, and prickly. These consonants reverberate beautifully when housed within dental-laden phrases such as "long keelhaul of electricity," "prickly chandelier of wind," and "shuddering ... throat." Taken together, such sounds enact the central image: one's throat becomes electrified by reading aloud Barker's prickly combination of syllables.
The Black Ocean's larger ambitions are clearly invested in political poems that contemplate "beings older than man / [who] prick their ears against the silence, / listening for the cries of the idiots and orphans / who move among them now through the unmapped dark" ("Gorbachev's Ubi Sunt from the Future That Soon Will Pass"). What's most affecting, however, are those quieter and more intimate moments when Barker shifts the book's public gaze toward the private lyric. Anticipating once more some unknown disaster, "Lullaby for the Last Night on Earth" eavesdrops on a pair of lovers who "whisper, so long, so lonesome" as they watch their "house on the horizon / go down like gasping zeppelin of bricks." After three stanzas that chronicle the couple's shared experience by means of an inclusive "we," Barker shifts to the first-person perspective and turns the poem via a dramatic imperative. "So sing me that song where a mountain falls / in love with an octopus, and one thousand fireflies / ricochet around their heads," writes the poet,
and I'll dream we're dancing in the kitchen one last time,
swaying, the window a waystation
of flaming leaves, the dogs shimmying
about our legs,
dragging their golden capes of rain ...
O my critter, my thistle, gal-o-my-dreams
There's something especially striking about Barker's turn from exaggerated metaphor—the wildly endearing characterization of the couple as a land-locked mountain in love with the sea-dwelling octopus—to the more pedestrian kitchen setting. The "flaming leaves" and dogs' "golden capes of rain" resist the evening's darkness; the sentiment expressed in the phrase "O my critter, my thistle, gal-o-my dreams" serves as a buffer against the chaos of the world's collapse. As is often the case in The Black Ocean, Barker ends his "Lullaby ..." with an act of defiance against silence:
lift your voice like an oar into the darkness,
for all the sad birds are falling down—
Nothing in this night is ours.
Whether public figures or lovers clinging to each other during the world's final hours, those who populate The Black Ocean are "stretching out // in the narrow corridors of [their] own pain," ("Poe Climbs Down from the Long Tapestry of Death to Command an Army of Street Urchins Huddled in Dusk"). Their final act of agency is expression itself: when from their open mouths "nothing [comes] out," even their "silences [rise] to heaven like handkerchiefs on fire" ("Nightmare for the Last Night on Earth").
In fact, this animation of silence is critical not only to The Black Ocean, but also to Stateside, Mule, and The Hands of Strangers. Whether illuminating the private rooms of Naval bases or nursing homes, or drawing from the shadows the psychological effects of autism or physical torture, Dubrow, Harrington, McCrae, and Barker labor to give voices to the marginalized. In this sense, their collections adhere to Rich's charge, in her poem "Modotti," for poetry that manifests "in the rush of breath a window" through which we might witness and thereby begin to recognize those otherwise unseen.
Shara Lessley, a contributing editor, is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale (New Issues). Her poems and essays appear in Michigan Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, The Southern Review, New England Review, and Gulf Coast, among others. She will be the the 2014 Mary Wood Fellow by Washington College. She can be reached at www.sharalessley.com