NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
One Blackbird at a Time by Wendy Barker
(BkMk Press, University of Missouri – Kansas City, 2015)
There are a lot of blackbirds in this collection – a whole dawn chorus of them and they really know how to sing! Wallace Stevens once wrote that you could look at them in thirteen different ways (no way is a right or a wrong way, all points of view are equally valid) but Barker, with a nod to Stevens in the poem entitled Arriving at Wallace Stevens in the 13th Week, wants to call for some sort of order after teaching English for forty years. She wants her students to wade into the sea of interpretation but not to drown in it. Sometimes she envies their flights of fancy when she herself can only follow one blackbird at a time. Thirteen Different Ways of Looking at a Blackbird was a seminal poem. It not only captured the imagination of the American literary scene but also that of the musical world who no doubt saw it as something akin to a set of variations. Both Boris Blacher, in 1957 and Lukas Foss in 1978 composed scores bearing the same title. Wendy Barker has done something similar in poetic form.
Barker began her teaching career in the public school system. She is currently Poet-in-Residence and the Pearl LeWinn Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at San Anronio, where she has taught since 1982. She is the author of five previous collections, three chapbooks and a collection of translations (with Saranindranath Tagore) from the Bengali of India’s Rabindranath Tagore. She has also written critical studies on Emily Dickinson and Ruth Stone. She is the recipient of several awards and has been a Fulbright senior lecturer in Bulgaria. Her work has been translated into Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Bulgarian. One Blackbird at a Time won her the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry.
The book cover, beautifully executed by Michael Mayhugh, shows a flock of blackbirds leaving a tree. Their wayward flight represents the scattered thoughts of a class of students responding to literature. It also represents the thoughts, public and private, of the one who is teaching them. A prologue entitled I Hate Telling People I Teach English leads into poems that are divided into four sections of roughly equal length divided by an illustration of a blackbird or a number of blackbirds (signifying the number of the section) perched on a branch.
Barker, in this volume at least, is a poet of the long line. With one exception, all the poems keep to a form that is visually consistent throughout. These consist of long lines followed by slightly shorter indented lines with no end-stopped lines at all. This has the effect of allowing the text to flow freely from one line to another in a kind of stream-of-consciousness format. Stylistically, Barker adopts a laid-back, conversational style which most frequently begins with the title of the poem running straight into the first line. The very first poem that she wrote (which is not, incidentally, the first to appear in the book) begins like this:
On Teaching Too Many Victorian Novels in Two Short a Time During Which I Become
Stuffed, like a twenty-pound turkey...
In this extract, the first line is the title and the second line is the beginning of the poem proper.
The long titles which match the long lines, have a cumulative effect as they lead up to the first word in the first line of the poem making it dominant and giving the reader a sense of arrival.
There are references to poets (Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, John Keats, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, etc.,) and novelists (E. M. Forster, Willa Cather, George Eliot, Harriet Beecher-Stowe, etc.,) throughout the book. Sometimes these references are to be found in the titles and at other times in the text. The book is not, however, a treatise on the teaching of literature – far from it – neither is it a commentary on the literary works (even though specific links can be found within each poem which refer back to the literary works themselves), rather it is about the thoughts and emotions that such works are capable of evoking within us.
Barker handles this theme consistently throughout the book. In some cases the thoughts are those of a teacher and in others they are the signalled as coming from a class of college students. Interestingly, all the students are named and therefore given an identity. The thoughts that follow do not come out of a vacuum but are rooted in the sense that they belong to someone and have arisen out of someone’s particular experience. These contributions act as a useful vehicle for ensuring that many different narratives or lines of thought can be conveyed during the course of each poem which means that the reader is never having to live with the same narrative for very long because another one comes along soon afterwards. This is what makes these poems fast-paced. Reading them is rather like being swept down a river which is being joined by the force of numerous tributaries before it reaches the sea.
The tempo is a reflection of just how fast our lives have become. Marie Mayhugh, in an interview with Barker, asks if the world has become too hectic for us to enjoy literature or too complacent with the advent of social media for us to be bothered to read it at all. Barker, in her response, says yes to both. We’re so distracted, so frazzled, so connected to so many external stimuli that we’re actually disconnected! With all our devices, with reams of information bombarding us constantly, certainly the ability to relish –to take the time for- novels and poems can be lost.
In order to achieve these effects, Barker frequently has three strands of narrative going on more or less simultaneously: the thoughts and associations of the teacher, the literary text and the input from the students. Some of the narratives apear to be linked by thought association but whether this is deliberately engineered is hard to say because it is all excercised so seamlessly from start to finish. It is interesting that Barker chose three strands of narrative given that Stevens was also (in the second stanza of his famous poem) of three minds: I was of three minds / Like a tree / In which there are three blackbirds. The usual saying is that one is in two minds about something...but Stevens (and Barker) by introducing so many lines of thought into their poetry, are in several minds.
For me, two linked themes appear to dominate this collection: the wisdom of age versus the cynicism of youth and the fact that maturity and understanding can only come with age and experience. How many of us have read a classic text but not really come to understand it and appreciate it fully until our later years? In an interview with Alan Feldman, published in Rain Taxi earlier this year, Barker admits that the book is very much about aging. In 2008, when the poems that comprise the book really took off, I had just been named Poet-in-residence at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and had been granted a much-reduced teaching load...I was four years away from turning seventy, and feeling I should fully retire before long. As the poems progressed, I began to feel I was writing my way out of teaching and into retirement.
The end of every semester is a bit like a rehearsal for retirement. In Next-to-Last Week in the Senior Workshop Barker muses:
when it’s time to end, it feels like layers
of skin being peeled. Sometimes, even
the best students won’t bother to find me
in my office after winter break to retrieve
their portfolios. Most I’ll never see
after finals. How I want to hang on, as if they’re
my own children...
As she says in her interview with Alan Feldman, I have to let go. Let go and let go and let go.
The threefold structure allows many subsidiary themes to emerge such as the need for beauty in our fractured world, reflections on aging and death, the power of the film versus the power of the novel, the need for religious tolerance and the nature of human relationships. The ideas come thick and fast as if everyone is voicing their own opinion at once. It is not too hard to imagine the teacher saying One voice (blackbird) at a time, please! The students are like the blackbirds, coming and going in her life, as they work their way through the curriculum.
For me, Barker is at her most lyrical in I’m Not Sure the Cherry is the Loveliest of Trees – which becomes an extended reflection on her own feeling of loss at never having seen a cherry tree (or a list of other named trees that she saw once but may never see again) counterbalanced by the gain to be had from the beauty and joy of all the trees that she has seen in her lifetime and is likely to continue seeing again. It is slower paced and more personal than some of the other poems and all the more powerful for it. The trees themselves are associated with personal memories. Again, the theme of aging is directly tied to Housman’s text:
.....I don’t even teach this poem now
I’m pushing threescore and ten. All that counting
Housman has us busy doing, figuring
the speaker’s age, and I know in class we’d end up
focusing on the stanzas with the math. Yet
students never had trouble getting hold
of the poem’s carpe diem message: inhale
the scent of roses while you can.
This is a fine collection. At the end of the day, it is about the power of literature, its emotional appeal, and how it affects us on many different levels.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016).