Reviews / May 2009 (Issue 7)

The Ventriloquist: Andy Barker's Snowblind from my Protective Colouring

by Alice Tsay


Andrew Barker, Snowblind from my Protective Colouring, Chameleon Press, 2009. 101 pgs.

The front matter of recent novels inevitably contains fine print declaring the book a work of fiction, with any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, being a matter of pure coincidence—a protective measure deemed necessary for our speculation-happy age. Oddly enough for a collection of poetry, Andrew Barker's Snowblind from my Protective Colouring starts off with a reminiscent move, boldly brought to the forefront of the work: "This is impersonal poetry," the Prologue begins, "Nothing here is about me[.]" Of course, the pre-emptive defense is only as true here as the other is for fiction: neither prose nor poetry can be consciously written in a vacuum, whether by shutting out an author's internal or external personal experiences. Barker in fact concedes, "Nothing here relates to my own view,/ Except to say, this is how I see you." The inauguratory comment, thus, becomes less about the contents of the work than the way the author intends them read. In Snowblind's case, the disavowal—deceptively complete—shapes the premise and underlies the central friction of the poems.

Published by Chameleon Press, the four-part collection ruminates on age-old subjects through a host of human lenses: two speakers provide contrasting perspectives in "Hammer and Anvil," an ungrouped opening poem. Then, a male and female voice—identified only in titles as "[He]" and "[She]"—take turns offering up villanelles in the opening section, "Everything in life is contagious." In Parts Two and Three, twenty-eight characters each receive fourteen lines of fame in "Fourteen People in Petrarchan Sonnet" and "Fourteen People in Shakespearian Sonnet." Finally, the eponymous twentieth-century fashion and art icons commune through interleaved stanzas in "Edie Sedgwick. Andy Warhol. The Broken Muse." Add one for the poet, who speaks in first person in Prologues and Epilogues book-ending Part One and the collection as a whole, and at least thirty-five distinct personas bare souls in this slim volume of verse, reflecting the local poet's ambition to sample precisely and inclusively from the spectrum of humanity in his exploration of love, life, and social roles.

The forms he prefers in Snowblind allow him to do so efficiently but make his poetic task significantly harder. Take the villanelle, with which he begins. Traditionally comprising nineteen lines in an aba aba aba aba aba abaa rhyme scheme, this exacting structure calls for first and third lines that take turns recurring as the last line of succeeding tercets and serve as the two closing lines of the final quatrain. Excelling within these strictures is near impossible, since the poet must give a sense of the varying to the unvarying, to build nuance and emotional heft.

So, kudos to Andrew Barker for taking on thirty-six in "Everything in life is contagious," an unpredictable demi-conversation between a man and a woman at what seems like the breaking point of their relationship—"our final-act problems," [He] calls them in a late villanelle. In the strongest poems here and throughout the collection, Barker's characters step outside of their situations to acknowledge the elements of theatre in social interactions, commenting indirectly on the writtenness of the poems themselves. "This imitation of conversation," the source of the quotation above, stands out as a particularly acute inquiry into the limits of language when deployed in emotional negotiations. All in all, the form is a clever choice for the subject matter of "Everything in life." If some villanelle refrains are less inspired than others, well, likewise the ruts of speech and thought that mark pet arguments in long-term relationships.

In Parts 2 and 3, the speakers of the sonnets continue in the dramatic vein of [He] and [She], declaiming aphoristic phrases and ten dollar words—"wilfing," "uxorious," etc.—in the spirit of those testing them on the tongue. We find "The Young Poet," "The Prodigal Daughter," and "The University A-Grade Student" among the Petrarchan round-up, "The Passing Beauty," "The Stalker," and "The Modern Eurasian" in the Shakespearian. Again, the traditional poetic form fits the timelessness of Barker's topics, with the invocation of the famously opaque Bard of Avon serving as additional reminder of his aim to remain an unreadable entity behind his characters.

As in the villanelles, the diction in these sonnets is lyrical, but often touched with bitterness or resignation; between them, jargon varies more than tone. Though drawn from all spheres of society, the characters carry their animator's propensity toward self-exegesis, imbuing these poems with a confiding feel that can catch the reader off-guard. "The Surviving Lover," for instance, is an uncannily spot-on rendition of just the type of heartfelt poem a surviving lover might present to an uncomfortable audience. Similarly, the consonance and internal rhymes present in especial force in "The Self-Hating Tai tai" combine in a voice so disconcertingly rap-like that the sonnet feels like the exposure of a stranger's secret life: "I trade the iced pink gin in for a pen,/ And, taught how to reject by rejection,/ Marinating in my own aggression[....]" The twenty-eight sonneteers each let loose in their fourteen lines, and as a result the reader feels increasingly boxed in by their adamant presentation of self-truths. 

Written without a formal structure, "The Broken Muse" at first seems like a marked departure from the rest of Snowblind. Imagery takes on a stark visual quality, phrases trail off in ellipses, and cohesion is forged through the recurrence of stanzaic fragments and a supple web of literary devices. No one, however, could miss the cultivated voice of the poet who sprinkles his work with words like "onanistic" and "gravid," the poet who brings back the concept of refrain and the sound-bite sagacity that so deeply characterize those earlier poems. "Please cry me a story/ Please weep me a goodbye[,]" the italicized Sedgwick repeatedly pleads. "I need to see something in your eye." Whereas the structure of "Everything in life is contagious" calls out for it to be read aloud by two people, as at the recent Man Hong Kong Literary Festival, "The Broken Muse" asks to be sung: Part 4 of the collection, with its high emotional tension and immensely quotable lines, unfolds like a tragic musical number in verse.

A constant in Barker's poetry, this necessity of performance arises as the natural counter to the insistence of the poet's unmistakable voice, which dictates much more than the coy "Nothing here relates to my own view" suggests. Dozens speak in Snowblind from My Protective Colouring, but their pieces ultimately reach the reader within an annotative envelope. Only in "Prologue" and "Epilogue" does the presence haunting the rest of the collection step into the spotlight; only in the last poem does the speaker—the poet uncertain, exposed, but barreling forth into the task of "worry[ing] the memory into a poem"—seem a flesh-and-blood being. In the villanelles, the sonnets, and "The Broken Muse," the poet gets all the details right, but even the most realistic of these poems call attention to their own fictionality; that is why they demand the immediacy and physicality a performance would give. Andrew Barker creates some compelling moments in Snowblind. The truest, however, are not products of the masks he dons but of his own voice, unadorned.

Editors' note: A new poem by Andrew Barker is published in this issue (issue#7) of Cha.

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