- Inhabited by the Unspoken
Barrow Street Press
82 Pages; Print, $16.95
After reading Tina Barr's third collection Green Target, there is a sedate sense of ever-present danger you can't quite put your finger on. It's in the garden. There's beauty and also something lurking. The idea of a paradise lost comes to mind, but doesn't quite satisfy. John Milton wrote that he wanted to "justify the ways of God to men." But it isn't providence that wants justification. Barr doesn't marvel at the beauty, she names it plain and simple. Yet, as Barr remarks in a November 2018 interview on NPR's All Things Considered, "There's always some sense of darkness working against the texture of the poem." Contributing to this "sense of darkness," most of the poems lack tonal cues and withhold that last explanatory phrase that sharpens the poem to a point. With no final statement from the poet you're not totally confident you understood the message—which makes the poetry even more ominous. We are faced with nature and with humanity, but Barr denies us the third term of providence, which might justify and resolve. Though she never introduces a god of any kind, Barr almost always offers a third element where we might expect a classic dichotomy. This is most obvious in the poem "In Fruiting, Which Is Dying, Is Made Seed." Consider the essential insight simply in the title: the age-old association between birth and death is made that much more ambivalent with the additional elements of fruit and seed. On the one hand, fruit is aligned with a raison d'être; it harbors seed, which supplies sustenance; but those simply as a byproduct of being alive. And in the context of this poem, the seed is the residuum and that which escapes control or justification. The poem is about the unspeakable and ends with an allusion to a less-than-consensual sexual encounter:
The girl pinned on her bed nightafter night, sits in her garden, with a cup of tea.A ruby-throat buzzes her dressing gown,tries to drink from its red roses.
The final couplet of this difficult poem calls to mind the ancient Greek story of a painting competition in which Zeuxis paints grapes so realistically that birds peck at the image attempting to eat them. But in the story, Zeuxis is not the better painter. Parrhasius wins the competition because his painting of a curtain fools not merely the birds but the judges, who urge him to open the curtain and reveal his work. Barr's poem combines the painted curtain and the painted grapes into the imagery of the dressing gown to strike a final note about perception and deception. But while nothing lies beneath Parrhasius's curtain, the dressing gown conceals a female body, and the imagery conjuring the phallic beak of the hummingbird, although not outright stated, is not to be overlooked. But rather than a symbol of danger, I think the poem urges us to read this imagery as relief from an even greater threat. As the bird flutters around the imaginary flower looking for nectar, we, like the ancient judges, realize the entire scene, not merely the flowers, is not real—or, perhaps more than the trompe l'oeil of ancient Greece might suggest, reality is layered.
Four of Barr's poems take their titles directly from the title of paintings by Jasper Johns, including the poem "Green Target, Jasper Johns, 1955." Paintings, by Johns and others, feature prominently—whether Barr engages in a poetic examination of one or simply makes reference. Barr writes ekphrastically in parts—always in the service of something not only visual but also conceptual. In the poem "After the Judgment of Cambyses"—a reference to a diptych by Dutch painter Gerard David in 1448 depicting the flaying of a corrupt judge—Barr begins with an unusually abstract stanza, a poetic rendition of a conventional description of the process of learning: "some tiny [End Page 21] ray skids us / towards a lightening, a new possible." Rather...