John Wall Barger
Spuyten Duyvil, New York City, 2021
101 pages / $16.00
The passionate and compassionate poems in John Wall Barger’s fifth full-length collection are delivered in a direct, plain-spoken voice that explores a wide range of subjects from the corniness of Van Gough to a racist shooting.
From the onset the poet declares:
“To live in peace we need quietness…
eating a slice of pizza in the sun.”
Among the clamoring masses of contemporary society these quiet poems fearlessly state their truths in precise, unadorned language. They are refreshingly honest and display a steadfast moral integrity. Beneath the deceptively unembellished voice there is a persistent intelligence. Some poets dazzle us with language at the expense of insight. John Wall Barger dazzles us with thought-provoking awareness cloaked in direct language. There is depth to these poems, something oddly missing in much contemporary poetry that too often deals primarily with surfaces.
Whether writing about India, eating at a Kentucky Fried Chicken with an uncle, receiving a “bitter email” or driving to nursery school on the back of his dad’s Triumph motorcycle, Barger’s poems are both celebratory and meditative. His is a voice searching not for easy answers or facile conclusions but one that leads the reader to question the often inscrutable behavior of human beings.
When Barger occasionally dips into the political it is not to score points (in the way of much so-called political debate) but to make us think. “What is mercy?” he asks of Rais Bhuiyan, who, originally from Bangladesh, was the sole survivor of a shooting spree by a white supremacist. Later, Bhuiyan unsuccessfully sued to stop the execution of
“the racist meth head
who shot you in the face.”
“In Islam,” Bhuiyan was quoted as saying, “saving one human life is the same as saving the entire mankind.” Barger’s poem, which might have easily become a rant or reached for convenient homilies, asks us to look deeper into the complexity of the human experience as Rais Bhuiyan so courageously did.
Barger admits in the title poem that “So many bad poems are litanies of trauma…” But, there is no self-pity in this book. In a poem he originally titled “The Moon Over Auschwitz” The poet wonders if he should be writing the poem at all
I can’t write that,
I’m not Jewish,
I’ve never even been
He dutifully examines his own privilege…
you are googling me
to confirm that I am,
as you guessed,
a white dude. You doubt that bad things
have happened to me.
I doubt it, too.”
There is honesty in this as well as a kind of dark humor. Barger writes very serious poems while simultaneously not taking himself too seriously. It is a refreshing change from the cantankerous grumbling of American culture at large where it seems everyone has staked out some hill on which they are not so much prepared to die but from which they can hector everyone else to death.
Far from hectoring, John Wall Barger asks forgiveness for past transgression as when he…
“…walloped Bruce Church
in the gut.
…Bruce, I’m sorry
I was trying to impress a girl.”
Barger ends the poem with this startling image:
“Love seems impossible, Bruce.
Though we exist
in its ripples.
Like the anatomy student
I once met
who slid the sheet
off a corpse
and there was
his childhood crush.”
There is something almost spiritual about this book (which should perhaps not surprise me given the title). I think it is this spiritual dimension that compels the poet to excavate below the surface of our world for some elemental cohesion that delivers to the reader that moment of recognition in which we see ourselves in the action of others. In this, John Wall Barger is a worthy guide. This is what the poet does throughout this fine book. He does not say, “listen to what I think.” Instead, he guides us to a situation and points to it as if to ask the reader: “What do you think?”
John Wall Barger's poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Rattle, The Awl, The Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His poem, Smog Mother, was co-winner of the Malahat Review’s 2017 Long Poem Prize. His fourth book, The Mean Game (Palimpsest Press, 2019), is now in its second print run. He lives in Philadelphia and teaches a poetry workshop at The University of the Arts.
Jonathan Harrington has published twenty books including poetry, novels, essays and translations. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop he has lived in Mexico for over twenty years. His latest book of poems is called Lift Up the Stone: The Gospel According to Jonathan (bilingual English/Spanish).