blackbirdonline journalFall 2012 Vol. 11 No. 2
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Review | The Black Ocean, by Brian Barker
                Crab Orchard Review and Southern Illinois University Press, 2011

spacer The Black Ocean

Brian Barker’s second collection, The Black Ocean, demonstrates the importance of ambition for poets near the beginning of their careers, while it interrogates the choices of how to achieve that goal. To bridge the gap between “promising” and “established,” writers must cultivate ambition; recognition doesn’t just happen, however much poets may wish it would. Many, perhaps most, pursue it in the form of publication and prizes—not in itself a bad thing at all, so long as those goals don’t disproportionately outrun ability (and, if you detect a touch of halfheartedness in this statement, put it down to the onset of fuddy-duddyism). I’ve never met Brian Barker; for all I know, he too goes after recognition of that sort. However, The Black Ocean tells me that he undoubtedly works hard at achieving a qualitatively different and more praiseworthy sort of ambition—for his work, not himself.

A big book, full of big and complex poems, The Black Ocean also takes big risks. Despite the intricacy and range of the poems, the book focuses tightly—I might even say, ruthlessly—on a grimly apocalyptic vision. Barker moves back and forth between the personal, especially a series of poems with titles containing the phrase “for the Last Night on Earth” (“Visions,” “Lullaby,” “Love Poems,” “Nightmare”), in which the speaker usually addresses his lover, and the political and historical, employing a succession of evils from the Trail of Tears to Chernobyl to the AIDS epidemic to illustrate the infinite capacity of the powerful for creating or ignoring, and the weak for acquiescing in, disaster. After the vision of a man being tortured, the speaker in “Nightmare for the Last Night on Earth” observes, “I opened my mouth and nothing came out—” adding, “my silences rose to heaven like handkerchiefs on fire.”

You will find none of the throwaway poems, those little breathers that usually pad out a collection. The wit, of which there’s plenty, has a bitter sting, as when, in “Gorbachev’s Ubi Sunt from the Future That Soon Will Pass,” the former Soviet leader (still living as of this writing) tells Ronald Reagan of his after-death vision in which Reagan appears as “a wax replica of you in a cowboy suit / propped in the chair like a corpse, for you could not bend.” “Lost on the Lost Shores of New Orleans, They Dreamed Abraham Lincoln Was the Magician of the Great Divide,” a poem about the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (and reminiscent of some of David Wojahn’s scathing Bush-era satires), begins, “In unison, the administration unknotted their ties / and rolled up their sleeves / and dismissed [the castaways] into darkness.”

Historical figures populate The Black Ocean. Besides Gorbachev and Reagan (who also appears on his deathbed in another poem), Edgar Allan Poe addresses “an army of [twenty-first century] street urchins,” drugged-out “meth-mouths / my darlings of death,” promising to lead them to “some other world, . . . you swarming abattoirs of night, / you droning calliopes of the dead.” Abraham Lincoln, “the Magician of the Great Divide,” appears for the “placeless and disembodied” victims of Katrina . . . but not necessarily as a benign magician: “He pulled his hand out of his hat and the rains / came again”; “He pulled his hand from his hat and held out the bridge / they’d never make it across . . . ”; “He pulled his hand from his hat and they heard the sound of the levee coming apart.”

In “Field Recording, Billie Holiday from the Far Edge of Heaven,” the singer makes a cameo appearance in a heaven that bears a strong resemblance to this flooded New Orleans:

          Loverman, when I woke
          we were banished

          on a rooftop together,
          the city sopped up by the sea.

Dragging Canoe, a warrior who refused to consent to the 1775 treaty that ceded large tracts of Cherokee land to a development company, merges with a burned-out “Fierce Warrior, Bear-Tamer” (“something // theatrical, not quite bear, not quite man”), who poses for tourist photographs on a modern reservation near a pit of dying bears where more tourists become “god-faces . . . // featureless puckers of milky light / that cluck and whistle and holler.” Dragging Canoe, asked by an elderly tourist “if he spoke / English” and contemplating scalping her (“even not knowing the technique”), wonders “what scream / might make the gods human again,” then realizes “it’s too late.”

Those gods recur throughout the book, sometimes human, sometimes apparently not, but always beings so powerful and so unconcerned with suffering that they have become forces of nature. “But the gods,” Barker writes, in a poem about a young addict who drags “his death / by a string,” “they refuse to blink, he’s nothing more / than a speck of shit on the eyelash of infinity, they say, / spitting sideways into the dust . . .” Even Gorbachev is troubled by visions of “the One-In-Whom-I-Do-Not-Believe,” whose face, like those of the tourist-gods, looms “flaccid, pale, almost featureless, / as if he’d been scalded by a pot of boiling milk” and who “touches me / and breaks me open like an endless matryoshka full of rain.”

The range of speakers and, for want of a better word, characters populating The Black Ocean extends beyond the human and the semi-human divine, as in the chilling final poem, “A Brief Oral Account of Torture Pulled Down Out of the Wind,” in which the torturers’ tools (the hood, the attack dog, the boot) have their brutal say. Similarly, in “Field Recording, Notes from the Machine,” the machine itself issues directives: “Flip the switch,” it orders, at first for innocuous purposes (“for applause for a tickertape parade  the cerulean sky”), later for destruction (“and the buildings crumble”), concluding with “Flip the switch— / [and they will mistake me for the sea  for something alive  for something / that cares].” The machine has by now become one with the gods.

Barker’s reliance on a limited set of eerie and often downright scary images creates unity throughout the collection. Like a Homeric seer, he finds omens in the flight of birds: During the politicians’ behind-the-scenes shaping of the treaty with the Cherokee, “birds darted into their secret rooms.” In “Lullaby for the Last Night on Earth,” “all the sad birds are falling down.” Similarly, in “The Last Songbird,” the poet begs, “O bird, what secrets we could confess / if only you would hold still, but you keep punishing us // by darting into the gaping mouth of oblivion.” In the “Brief Oral Account of Torture,” “songbirds plummet from the sky.” In “Lost on the Shores of New Orleans,” “bluebirds”—those harbingers of happiness—appear “flying backwards.”

While the birds foretell destruction, images of debris and decay embody it. From “half-forgotten meals spilling from a dumpster” on the Cherokee reservation to the “six-packs of beer, / melted motherboards, bloated road kill . . . milky condoms / and rusted out carburetors,” detritus of a throwaway culture, tossed by the tourist-gods into the bear pit, to the brain of Edgar Allan Poe like “a head of gelatinous cabbage suspended // in the stupor of memory” as he addresses his nihilistic brigade of young Goths, to “Bibles bearded in mold” from the flooded Mississippi, things fall apart; the blood-dimmed tide spreads rot and death.

The dead show up repeatedly: In Gorbachev’s vision, “the dead I had denied in life were descending / in a bright crowd.” Twice, “the severed heads of history” hang from the branches of trees. In “Lost on the Lost Shores of New Orleans, “the dead bumped, gibbous-eyed, blind as stones” in the water.

Blind eyes and those milky, “featureless” faces of the gods recur, as do snow and powder—once, “the phosphorescent dust / of disappearing ghettos,” once, “a fine stinging snow of asbestos”—often set against a black night sky. The “black ocean” of the title “seething in its bowl,” “rising,” “drying up,” forms a leitmotif throughout. You have the sense that, whatever that ocean is doing, its water is icy cold and functions as a lethal injection. Like a grainy newsreel, the stark black-and-white continues with photographic negatives and X-rays, all contributing to a subliminal image of that coldly lit torture chamber set in “the lunar landscape of the lost” in the concluding poem.

The Black Ocean won’t lull you into pleasant dreams, but you very likely won’t be able to look away from Brian Barker’s vision any more than you could look away from the videos of Abu Ghraib. Barker deserves recognition, not only for risking such a large and disturbing book, but also for achieving his ambitions and his vision with skill, focus, and artistic maturity.  end

Brian Barker is the author of two collections of poetry, The Black Ocean (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011), which won the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Competition Award, and The Animal Gospels (Tupelo Press, 2006), which won the 2004 Tupelo Press Editors Prize. Barker is an assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver and a co-editor at Copper Nickel.

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