It was a good week for me and poetry.
This week I finished off David St. John’s The Face and started and finished Catherine Barnett’s Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced.
The Face is a wildly imaginative project, an idea I wish I would have (and could have?) had myself: a middle-aged man comes to terms with his past and his relationships even as an intrepid filmmaker shoots a biopic of his life (which will run in reverse!). Formally, the poems seem a departure for St. John—long, expansive lines with seemingly random breaks; an effusive voice eager to reveal his story but ashamed of it at the same time. It’s a complicated book-length sequence, with each poem titled by a Roman numeral and nothing more.
My favorite piece in the book, which, incidentally, ran in the last issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review I co-edited:
Everybody ends up…here, at Edge World. Just my kind
Of theme park; & maybe it’s your kind of theme park too? So maybe
You go for one of those short, three-day “Lost Weekend” passes—
Not me; I’ll hang in there for weeks at a time. I’m what you call “dedicated,”
& I’ve found that some artificial incentive can help steady you for
A favorite ride—mine’s “The Abyss.” It’s really just for one person. You
Stand at the lip of a black chasm, strapped into a silver, spring-loaded harness,
As, below, at the bottom of the abyss, a few emaciated dingoes & starved
Pit bulls tear at the raw carcasses of lambs. Icy-blue gas jets keep spitting up
Flames to keep the dogs & dreams all hopping. But for me, the best part is this:
The far face of the canyon wall is really one big movie screen, & scenes of
The most horrifying
& humiliating moments of your life are looped together, running endlessly,
Edited so that the really desperate episodes crescendo into a burst of self-pity
That sets even the dingoes howling. Here & there, I recognize scenes (of myself)
From earlier Edge World visits, though I swear I don’t recognize a single
Face in that sticky sea of bodies. Finally, after you’ve watched for a while,
Some attendant walks on over & simply
Pushes you off the edge.
Retyping that out, it occurs to me that this might be the kind of poem Berryman would write (or be interested in writing) were he around today. Neurotic, self-obsessed and ashamed in the way that only the most anxious, OCD person can be…and yet, understandable. I know Edge World. Maybe this is the appeal of the work for me.
Barnett’s book is a 180 from St. John’s book. Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced is a quiet tour-de-force, the kind of book that, days later, you can’t seem to shake. I picked it up early in the week and, after about 7 pages, had to put it down, not because the work was bad, but because the work was literally tearing me to pieces. I’m not sure I’ve read a book to which I had such a visceral response; the closest I’ve come, I think, would be the first time I read D. A. Powell’s Cocktails, but even then I was so transfixed I could not look away.
I went back to Spheres the next morning and read it right through to the end. I might be attracted to this work—aside from its mastery—because of my own experiences with grief in the past year. She’s speaking my language. I know what this is, this confusion and caution. Barnett’s narrator is a careful participant-observer in her family’s tragedy, seeking both understanding and a return to a kind of equilibrium. And maybe that’s the real message of Spheres—that the most perfect, unspoiled parts of life, when corrupted, can never be restored. There will always be an absence. There will always be an absence.