In the famous southern US folk tale, “Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby,” the cruel Br’er Fox captures the loveable trickster Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Rabbit pleads for his life: “Roast me! Hang me! Do whatever you please. Only please, Br’er Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.” Br’er Fox, convinced that the best way to hurt Br’er Rabbit is the briar patch, hurls him in. Once in the briar patch, Br’er Rabbit calls back to Br’er Fox, gloatingly, “I was bred and born in the briar patch, Br’er Fox”! And he “skipped away as merry as a cricket.”
Melanie Janisse Barlow’s Thicket presents the reader with a linguistic briar patch: a dense, dark undergrowth of language, thorny and disquieting for trespassers, but the ideal size and shape for someone “bred and born” there. In this analogy, Barlow is Br’er Rabbit (trickster-poet) and we readers are her guests (rabbit friends?). She moves through the labyrinthine darkness with dexterity, a generous host, while we hop behind her, trying not to get lost or catch our fur on the barbed underbrush.
The cover of Thicket, an abstract drawing made up of black brushstrokes depicting perhaps the inside of some kind of dark hive, presents a dramatic gate to the space within. We open the book, as if stepping inside an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture, and find ourselves inside the briar patch. A plethora of forms and voices twist across us: musicians, poets, artists, neighbors, friends, strangers. The book’s five sections shift in form, from prose paragraphs, to sharp musical lines, to spare aphorisms. Each poem drops us in medias res deeper into the space of tangled voices: displaced, dejected, dismayed, disembodied voices. It’s not the easiest space to enter, but once our eyes acclimatize and we wipe off our cuts, shake off our bruises, and give over to the logic of it, the experience is immersive, communal, sublime.
As we read, traversing the murky barbed underbrush, characters come into focus: the speaker, her husband, Charliegirl, a dog named Ketchup, neighbors. The speaker often speaks in a Beat-like or Faulknerian stream of consciousness (“Glass trinkets tucking beer drinking / hipsters glass apples colored nicotine / a vegetarian dinner on a double decker bus / in Shoreditch then vanishing into the / morning clinking luggage down stairs”), then reverting suddenly to disarming candor: “Here are some things that I do when no one is watching: brush my teeth in the shower, when I have them, eat things standing in front of my fridge, talk to my dogs while shitting. They always follow me in there.” A personal story begins to surface: a woman (the speaker) recoups on a boat with her husband and two dogs, listening to Robyn Hitchcock and Joni Mitchell, reading Plath and Sexton and Ginsberg. They live between Detroit and Windsor, on a nebulous frontier called Windsoria.
Barlow’s speaker has suffered, but the details of that suffering remain general. “Each time I come, there are new spider webs spun in every window. Each ache increases with time … Soon the boil of the day will come … Everything is happening around this body. This body is on tilt.” The nature of the “ache” “boil” and “tilt” is not explained, nor are there any simple answers in the air. The generalization of pain is effective, allowing the reader to enter the book on their own terms. We can’t know whose heart is at stake, or how deep the pain goes, but the pervasive spiritual language (in the disorder of a street, beside an old dog, there is a “holy order”; and one of the final poems ends with, “there is a life after”) bodes well for the people involved.
In the second section, “notes for charliegirl: a long poem,” the possibility of growth and revelation materializes: “just along the edges filling the ashtrays/ peonies are out/ think fast/ heartbursts/ tenderness unballing into papered joy/ silk cheeked/ tender heavy/ drooping groundwards& how the fuck do you open the heart?/ where does lift come from? levity where the spine grows long& the shoulders let go?& oh jesus the peonies are out” (written as prose with slashes). Similarly, in the last section, called “don’t tie the river down: important postscripts,” almost every poem begins with the refrain “in it”—meaning, presumably, “in” the river, or life, the thicket, the heart: “in it / it is so / tender / a heart / accordion / each chakra lighting up like a light / bulb.”
In the thicket, language resists reference point. Barlow relishes how, even as we try to describe something, language can disintegrate (“You won a shell of him that you made a shell”; “It is irrational and the odds are stacked in the compost”; “pass me the museum of myself”). These aren’t academic poems exactly, or identity poems, or confessional poems, or lyric poems. It’s almost as if, as soon as Barlow establishes a context, she feels the restless need to disrupt it. Or perhaps she’s pointing out how language itself disrupts, even as we try to use it to form meaning.
Barlow paints herself into linguistic corners, constantly surprising the reader and (one senses) also herself. The reader, disoriented within Barlow’s word-thicket, sometimes feels like they’re looking into Ashbery’s Convex Mirror, or caught in the Entanglements of Rae Armantrout. We feel, as with the poems of Mary Ruefle, a sense of the poet’s own contagious astonishment and joy at finding herself in this odd space (“so if you don’t mind i will just keep keeping on despite my fondness for the sadladypoets& our collective recognition that it fits like a glove/ a glove i say!” (written as prose with slashes)). Barlow takes pleasure in complicating every form she constructs, refusing to force simple solutions or “neat” endings onto the poems.
Toward the end of the fourth section, called “windsoria: the thick poems,” Barlow provides us with an insight into her Ars Poetica: “If I am to write, may it come out freely like music or tangled like a thicket. A thin line of sentences. Life’s missing ingredients. I have a friend on the West Coast who is hand carving runes out of found felled wood.” This helps us to understand why the poems in Thicket alternate from musical to dissonant, from lucid to opaque, from thick to thin. I especially appreciate the notion of the book as constructed out of “missing ingredients,” like runes or found objects. Runes are, of course, small stones, pieces of bone, used as divinatory symbols, with a supernatural or spiritual significance. Thicket, while not narrative or explanatory, leaves a trail of clues for us. From the trinkets, peonies, old dogs, and other runes we have gathered, we—after we’ve emerged safe and sound, having skipped off merry as crickets—are free to create our own singular idea of what actually happened in the briar patch.