Geographic Range

The Singers I Prefer by Christian Barter. CavanKerry Press, 2005. 87 pp. $14. Reviewed by Seth Michelson.

Remarkably subtle and distinctive for a first book of poems, Christian Barter's The Singers I Prefer explores the diversity of voices comprising the world. Poem by poem, he individuates a variety of animate and inanimate subjects, including musical instruments, suicidal writers, German weapons from World War I, insects, Greek heroes, and himself in the first, second, and third person. Not content only to enact these voices, Barter interrogates their necessity, asking "Do we need all these voices?" His answers are as expressive of a unitary metaphysics as they are rich in imagination and emotional nuance:

                 ...I have noticed

                 that many voices heard together

                 become a single voice, and that even

                 silence, after a while, will begin

                 to squeak in its chair, to cough.

A tribute to Barter's skill and vision, the book's distinct voices ultimately resound as one, and that coherence is largely achieved through Barter's use of unhurried syntax and vernacular language. That combination imbues each voice with a tough, resilient consistency, and it also permits the occasional flash of Barter's good sense of humor. Take for instance the following lines about his former belief in marijuana's potential to save the world:

                 Not this

                 world, necessarily, but

                 the real one underneath it all

                 on which our lives float -

                 this is getting deep -

                 like driftwood or something. Well,

                 not that it needs saving, the

                 real world underneath it all, just

                 finding again and again and again.

Although rarely that jokey, the book's poems are consistently that immediate and deliberate.  They affect the reader's mind the way the year's first snow affects Barter's native Maine: The November day is clear and sunny when a cloudbank drifts subtly in, and suddenly snowflakes are falling, changing the landscape for months to come.

Most often Barter's new landscapes strand the reader between "some almost crippling pain" and "all the sweetness," as in the book's title poem. And like those singers, Barter repeatedly aspires to confront life's long suffering with music's restorative beauty. This is as striking in the self-exploratory poems of the book's first and third sections as it is in the second section's outward investigations of historical moments, items, and figures. An example of the former arises through the wispy couplets of the poem "Drawing," a gossamer narrative on the fragility of memory and, consequently, of art:

                 ...I remember now

                 the nights we sat all night at the window,

                 sending our smoke into the street and getting

                 back the sweet cool of August,

                 our words loaded with careless

                 importance, as though we thought

                 that even our smallest gestures

                 would last forever.

Perhaps one of the finest aspects of Barter's talent lies in his control of lineation.  Not only do his lines manipulate the reader's breath to conduct each poem's music, but the lines also often create synesthetic metaphors for the poem's content by arranging sounds and rhythms. For instance consider the opening lines of the poem "George Dorr's Abandoned Bicycle Path":

                 They say it may have been - built

                 in 1906 - the world's first

                 trail for mountain biking, now all

                 the rage for the synthetic-garbed,

                 the nuclear-bright...

Here the poem is as syntactically bumpy and curvy as the bicycle path of its title. Furthermore, the already heavily stressed lines are enjambed with violence and velocity. This forces the reader to breathe frequently and at odd, sudden junctions, much the way a cyclist might huff and gasp while navigating Dorr's rugged trail. Similarly, the lines, with their interposed clauses and hard punctuation, feel forcibly hewn from the wilderness of the blank page, thereby paralleling Dorr's creation of his path from the undifferentiated land.

Like lineation, time is also masterfully controlled throughout the book. In his more chronologically modest poems like "Russian Dead in No-Man's-Land, 1915," Barter delves into relatively finite, contiguous moments, while in other poems he stretches and compacts time more wildly. For example, in "The Lost World of the Aegean," Barter compresses millennia into seconds and then dilates those seconds into infinity:

                 ...a painting displays two Minoan women

                 in finely wrought jewelry feeding a monkey

                 between the pillars of a stone bathhouse.

                 Nearing the end of another relationship,

                 I'm at the point where

                 I don't want anything to die anymore -

                 the women, the monkey, the civilization,

                 even the creator of the Marlboro Man ...

This crafty juxtaposition of the historical with the personal suffuses the speaker's private despair with the heft and breadth of an entire era, thereby exacerbating his anguish by protracting it beyond its rational, self-contained space. And if that enlargement of the personal were not consuming and relentless enough, the subsequent catalogue then wallops the reader with four sharp blows of metonymic sadness, ensuring a type of debasement and disorientation of the reader. Such deep anguish in a young poet's work can become reiterative, dull, and solipsistic, but Barter avoids such failings by moving constantly. He moves with great geographic range, roving from Maine to Cambria to Vietnam to Brest-Litovsk and elsewhere, and he moves equally nimbly across intellectual space, engaging the metaphysics of Homer, Yeats, Dickinson, Hemmingway, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Nietzsche, Beethoven, Bach, and many others.

But Barter's finest, fiercest movement derives from his use of disjunction, which fuels one of the book's most memorable poems, "Something Else." Closing the collection, the poem intertwines three distinct narrative threads: the speaker's four-day fever when "the world / took on a kind of flickering darkness," the speaker's friend stumbling through "a sadness for her little sister, killed / in a wreck," and a member of the speaker's card game who "dreams / of a dead friend all the time." The integration of those threads yields a plangently irresolvable climax, which by itself is well worth the purchase price of this auspicious debut book, let alone its forty-five other evocative poems.