John Wall Barger

Jonathan Harrington

Smog Mother: John Wall Barger, reviewed by Jonathan Harrington

Smog Mother

John Wall Barger

Palimpsest Press
Windsor, Ontario, Canada / 2022
ISBN: 9781990293214
ePUB: 9781990293221
$18.95 USA / $19.95 Canada

John Wall Barger’s sixth collection of poems begins with a kind of prologue, an eleven page poem that sets the scene for the parts that follow. In a highly detailed, cinematic style the poem describes Bangkok in all its beauty and poverty. An unknown narrator presents image after image of the decaying, fetid city: the crippled, insane, homeless sleeping beside pagodas and 7-11s, toxic rivers flowing with garbage, the smell of sex for sale…all watched over by the mysterious Smog Mother. There is no judgment here, instead incise, unadorned description.

This bird’s eye view of the city is followed by six sections consisting of a total of twenty-five poems that take a closer look at the individuals living in this ancient, wounded and beautiful metropolis as well as other parts of Asia.

In the first poem in this section the poet describes sitting beside a dirt road with the local people watching a boxing match.

“Handsome De la Hoya, eye mashed
shut, mouth twisted, a punctured
balloon of a man, smashed bust
of a god.”

These succinct, graphic images predominate throughout the book but are never gratuitous. Barger focuses on the homeless and destitute, the people who in a cities like Bangkok are invisible to the average citizen. Again, the poet makes no judgment regarding the city of Bangkok (visit New York and you can see the same thing and the same indifference). What the poet accomplishes is to make these people visible.

The third section finds us on the metro in Hong Kong then in another poem we are at a funeral in Kathmandu beside the “…gray bilge smog-trickle of Bagmati River.”:

“They wrap your dark penis in cloth. Each
touches your hair. All parts of the ceremony.
Nobody blinks when a tourist cuts in
to take a selfie with you.”

There is no comment on this outrageous behavior by a tourist. John Wall Barger is an observer and a chronicler. As in his previous books he simply presents images and allows his readers to do their own editorializing as if to say (as Elizabeth Bishop does in her poem “The Moose”) “Life’s like that. We know it (also death)”. Reading the poems in this powerful book is like watching a silent documentary film. If you want moralizing and polemics you won’t get it from this poet.

It is the specificity of image and the way the poet curates the most idiosyncratic scenes and does it so effortlessly that is most impressive, spinning out image after image as if unrolling a spool of yarn: a Tibetan woman feeding a donkey slices of watermelon, Aderall schoolkids smeared with McDonald’s ketchup and anxiety.

One might ask if these images are nothing more than poverty porn. I say NO because John Wall Barger does criticize…but only himself:

“I am the big flabby American poet…”

These self-deprecating observations are sprinkled throughout the book and they are sincere.
But does the poet offer solutions to this shocking disparity between the observed and the observer? No. “Life’s like that. We know it (also death)” Insensitive? No more than the top-heavy NGO’s that shower developing nations with money (often inadvertently doing more harm than good) in order to salve the consciences of their affluent benefactors in the West. Besides, the people themselves do not invite meddling:

“This is our business.
Look away tourist.”

I have lived in the rural, developing world for twenty-two years now. I am not unfamiliar with some of the scenes described in Smog Mother. But all is not negative in this powerful work. The worst kind of observer is one who describes poverty in a dehumanizing way, blind to what joy people might have in their lives. That is not to say that the poor are happy the way they are. Or that they live simple lives free of stress. Poverty is a grinding, stressful way of life. But there are weddings and birthdays to celebrate, children to love and nurture and funerals at which to mourn. John Wall Barger’s project is to show the human face of what many in the West see as a monolithic disaster in which they patronize or fetishize the people who must live in these conditions. This poet makes sure that we first see the people themselves as fellow human beings worthy of respect and love:

“At the Bhagsu Waterfall
girls wade in
wrapped in saris.
Mothers wave from tables,
babies on laps.
Boys and men, louder,
shout, dive, splash
in their underwear
at the deep end of the cold

To dive into Smog Mother is to enter a disturbing world of our own creation. But some countries in the West (particularly the United States with its appalling inequality) are beginning to look more and more like the Asia John Wall Barger describes in these poems.

That might be the most disturbing thing of all.

Jonathan Harrington

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 The Frozen Sea Within Us: New & Selected Poems ( The book covers forty years of a life in poetry.