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Brian Barker
07-07-07

Poems - Bio - Review - Interview

Brian Barker

Crow Gospel Coming Down From The Mountain

In the winter of 1980, when the landfill 

Was bulldozed over, the crows strutted into town
To roost in the trees along Beaver Creek
And spar over the trash bins on State Street.

 

The mountain shone a pale gray-purple,--
The color of a crushed crocus,
                                           or the dying skin of a god

 

Who turned his back on our town, the double-wides
Sinking in a field of mud, the dim housing projects
With Christmas lights twittering in windows, their chimneys
Scrawling the sour smoke of whatever might burn.

 

Defeat smelled like a lumbering feathered mustiness,


Something vinegar-breathed--

 

It sounded like the dozens of rusty caws that swung
Down through branches, through telephone wires
And television antennas

 

The day Little Jimmy Jenkins and his ilk, white-robed,
A few of the men playing instruments,
Zig-zagged towards City Hall.

 

I saw it from the second floor of my elementary school
After someone shouted Parade! and the windows filled
With waving, giggling third graders.
                                                    Mrs. Rutherford tried to shoo us
Back to our desks, then finally gave up, wrote freedom on

    the board
And smoothed out the front of her dress, waiting

 

For the clangs and squeaks, for the thin
Backs of the men and their sharp, shiny hats
To whittle away in the winter wind.

 

                                         *

 

That winter, when the wind tumbled down the dark,
I slept
          and took it all inside me--

 

The mountain looming in my bedroom window,
Covered in ice, its light waning
From within, daub of leafrot and foxfire going under,
Black branches clicking like turnstiles--

 

And the crows in the pines behind the Piggly Wiggly
Speaking in tongues, spread-winged and gaff-eyed
When they kited down through snow to the dumpsters--

 

And Jimmy Jenkins, and Mrs. Rutherford wiping chalk
From her hands, and my parents whispering
About the black and white couple who moved in

    down the street.

 

Winter wind on my neck, flashback and backlash
Of the past, it all whorls inside me--
                                                    the Christmas decorations
Downtown, bells and the jostle of bright lights,

 

Shopping at JCPenneys with my mother
When the battered Job Corps bus sputtered up
And a line of black men filed off,

 

Dirty and exhausted from working
Construction the whole day, dynamiting
And bulldozing a hole that would become, by summer,
The Lee Tunnel off Highway 81.

 

What comes back are their blue coveralls,
And how they hung their heads when their foreman,
The one they called Mr. J. D., seethed at them--

 

Perk up you bunch of goddamn sissy fusses and wipe off
Your grubby hands before you touch anything.

 

And maybe this is a story told best by hands:


The sales clerk twisting her pencil; my mother
Clutching her purse, squeezing my arm
Tighter and tighter; the security guard tapping
The handle of his blackjack.

 

Each man's hands with their fingerprints and palmprints,
Their sheen of salt and oil, reaching out to cup
The hem of a silk negligee, to stroke the collar of a wool coat.

 

And one hand ghosting against the warm glass,
The white light of the jewelry counter,
Reminded me of a bird,
                                   its delicate hinges and slender bones.

 

                                        *

 

Defeat brindles on the crows' calls, snags
In the thick scumble of pines.

 

It shakes itself from the green needles, a poison
Tunneling through snow,
                                     sifting through a mizzle of sleet.

 

It's the knifelight in the water moccasin's eye.
It's an absence, a presence, siltslide and cutbank
Where the rhododendron roots fray mid-air.

 

Gauze and black sticks, halo of coal dust,
It drowns the poor in the backwater,
                                                     in the whiskeylight of winter.

 

Defeat unscrolls like a scrawl of smoke,
It slurs and spiders in the dark: fractured prayers
Blistering like headlights on icy asphalt.

 

                                        *

 

I remember my grandmother--a neat woman,
A kind woman, a staunch Christian--

 

Looking out the picture window in her apartment
On the hill, a little tatter of Kleenex
In her fist, her lips pursed as she looked down

 

On the rooftops of the projects, the mildewed brick
And scraps of tarpaper lifting in the wind.

 

She turned to me and said, The coloreds ruin everything

    they touch.
She said, You watch who you make friends with, you hear?

 

And I did hear, and heard again, a little later,
When she asked me over my cheese and juice,
Do you think if you died tonight you'd go to Heaven?

 

Later, when I lay in bed fearing an end
I couldn't even imagine, I gave God a body
And a name, and tried to pray:

 

I'm an honest boy, Hoss.
My heart is clay, Hoss.
O please Hoss, hollow me out before they do.

 

                                        *

 

Who is it that saunters there on State Street, holding his hat
With one chalky hand, flashing his polished flask in the other?

 

Brother Defeat in his swank suit,
                                               hankie sprouting like a little flame.

 

Brother Defeat in his starched shirt and his tie
Snug in its Windsor knot,
His skin cloyed with the scent of rotting gardenias,

 

Heading down to the corner of Has Been & Never Will Be,
Where Sisyphus--
                          hunched on his milk crate, polyester shoulders
Worn down to a sheen, pants too tight and riding up
Like a bad dream--
                           plays his broken accordion,
Busking for gum wrappers and pocket lint.

 

Of all his busted instruments, he loves the accordion
The most, loves its duct-tape suture and the grooves
Fingered out on the whalebone buttons,
Loves the mice shit rattling around inside it.

 

Brother Defeat leans against the lamp post, tapping his foot
And stroking his white beard, tossing cashews to the crows

 

As Sisyphus, eyes shut tight, feels the mountain
Crumbling on his back, feels the night
Sweat through his three-piece suit,

 

And leans into his wheezing skeleton of song.

 

                                        *

 

Because I wanted to believe in something,
I took the mountain inside me.

 

Because I believed it couldn't be moved,
I thought it wouldn't betray me.

 

It's the oldest story I know

 

But now a hole unfurls through it, through you,
Hoss, to the golf course and the country club,

 

And now you're nothing but the lost geography
Of the soul, not the place but the ideal of the place,

 

Some old longing, unattainable.

 

                                        *

 

Once, God was the land without end,
And those at one with the land

 

Were at one with God, and work was not work
But a type of prayer, the sun warm on your neck,
The breeze blowing right through you

 

As your soul stepped out and ran ahead a little
Through the high grasses, through the tangled swell
Of woodbine and buckthorn, through the pines
Beyond the rimrock, and the mountain,

 

Which was the slow revelation of time itself.

 

Each thing the soul passed through left its outline,
Left its impression, like a wet feather plastered on glass.

 

It's one truth I know older than crows,
But it's been mapped, cut up, divvied out

 

So many times, it's worth nothing more now
Than the broken Christmas ornament
Strewn across the sidewalk as it begins to snow,

 

And Sisyphus shuffles back onto the bus
For the long ride back to the Get By.

 

It's too late for him now, but for a moment
Let me become part of each thing he knows--

 

Part of the snow planing down, then blown
Into waves of static. Part of the gold glass in the gutter,
The faint light locked behind each piece.

 

Part of the stray dog trotting around the corner
And its teats trotting in the air beneath it.

 

Part of the sighs the mountain swallows
And will not fling back.

 

Part of the sky that unfurls when he cradles
His head in his hands. Part of the crows that strut there.

 

Part of the watch ticking in his pocket and growing louder,

 

Time no longer contained but unbridled, one end of his-
Story folding over onto the other,

 

Endlessly, the way each thin flame of a fire
Lays down on the next, until what's left

 

Is the color of defeat, and weighs nothing.

 

                                        *

 

I don't know what set the crows going, shovel-thump
Or shotgun, or perhaps the kiss of flint in the backs of their minds,
The way the snow kissed the asphalt, and the asphalt snuffed it out.

I don't know what it was, but one evening they disappeared.


Not for good at first, but they ended up
Where they were for a reason:

 

                                            there at Carter's Crossing,
On the hill behind the construction company, the dead burr oak
Alive now with their shifting and preening, their smoky skirls.

 

Fire on the mountain, fire in the heart
And all those eyes flecked with gold

 

As Little Jimmy, and the one they called Mr. J.D.,
And Red the security guard from the store,
Stumbled from a pick-up, tossing the tarp off the back
Where Sisyphus was bound and gagged
For a watch lifted from beneath the glass.

 

They only meant to teach him a lesson, they said,

 

Until the shotgun was fumbled, snub-nose
Down, into the blue-black whump and nightsuck--

 

And this is where the story swirls and drifts, where I lose my

    place
For the watch has quit ticking and the men have stepped

    into the trees
As if stepping backstage, another act done, the theater dark

    and quiet
And filling with snow.

 

Sisyphus is curled where the spotlight once was, his mask
Peeled back to the face of a man, the wound beneath his eye
A wilted flower he's already become,

 

Just as he's become the clods of dirt that dribbled
Down his back, and the sound of cars siphoning from one side
To the next, the sweep and bounce of their headlights--

 

A man becoming something flawless
And iridescent, like the neck of a crow in a family of crows,
Or their measured slap of wings,
                                               first one, then another,


Then all of them lifting through the molten smalt of memory,
Undulating, as if each bird was of one mind, was a single feather
On some larger bird,
                              emptied of flight one more time.

 

                                        *

 

One by one, the men vanished into the landscape,

 

And the children returned to their desks,
Only to cradle their heads in their arms and forget
And drift, for good, out of the story into the chatter
And laughter echoing through the corridor.

 

How can I get it right? How can I push the pieces
Back into place now that the classroom has emptied

 

And dead leaves flutter in the coat closet,
Now that all the textbooks have filled with flames?

 

Tonight, my remembering is nothing more
Than a record of my forgetting, and the boy is where
I left him, alone, a blurry face at the window,

 

Waving now to the white men, comical in their pointy hats,
Now to the black men on the bus, their heads
Bowed, their shoulders slumped to the arc of the sledge.

 

I am him and not him, trembling in the air
Around his body as the snow
Exhausts its options against the glass.

 

I am him and not him, the crows long gone,
The day's lesson done and streaked across the blackboard,
A word that weighed nothing more than the lace handkerchief

 

Mrs. Rutherford coughed into,
Until the cough, or the memory of the cough, is all
I remember, all the truth has become,

 

A warm mist where a body once stood.

 

-from The Animal Gospels 

 __________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Poems - Bio - Review - Interview

 

Brian Barker's first book of poems, The Animal Gospels, won the Tupelo Press Editors' Prize. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in such journals as Poetry, Agni, Quarterly West, American Book Review, The Writer's Chronicle, The Indiana Review, Blackbird, Sou'wester, and River Styx. He has earned a B.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University , an M.F.A. from George Mason University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Houston. He has taught at the University of Houston and the University of Missouri and will begin as an Assistant Professor of English and Coordinator of Undergraduate Creative Writing at Murray State in the fall of 2006.

 

__________________________________________________________________________________________

 
 
A Review of Brian Barker's The Animal Gospels by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Brian Barker’s first book of poems, The Animal Gospels, is a collection that fearlessly seeks to uncover that which made and makes the self.  In poem after poem, Barker reaches for insight with the highest lyrical and narrative ambitions, moving within and between time and imagination and at all times examining the strange entanglement of elements that make us who we are. Like the “fizz and flash / of your spent filament” that briefly illuminates the “foggy-eyes stranger” in the mirror of “Self-Portrait With Burnt Out Light Bulb,” like that “smoky globe” which, when shaken, emits a “scarce, peculiar song  of broken light,” it is the musical world that draws Barker to the poetic medium.

The book’s first section, composed of the poem “Flood” asks:

            Where have all the night tunes fled?”

            The thrum of locusts, those tin blossoms I loved
            To hear ratchet and uncoil
                                    And swivel down from the cypress trees,
            Are long gone, gone with the freight trains
            Slogging through humidity,
                                                Their shadowchurn over
            The tarred trestles, their castanets of wood and air and steel...

“Flood” is a poem that depicts the aftermath of 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison in Houston, Texas with the musicality (or sudden lack thereof) of the convergence of the animal and human as its driving principle. In this opening section, Barker reveals his acute awareness of the frail connection between these realms and asks not only “Who will remember us?” but also challenges himself with that duty: “What will I remember?”

The poems of the second section show Barker’s wide imaginative range.  Like the clabberless bell of "Elegy With A Mute Bell,” which has lost its “perfect // high-toned pitch” leaving only “its absence… marked // on the sill,” “Gospel with Lion And Gazelle” and “Snow Over Shaver’s Fork” discover a liminal “space / before speech where the wind // swallows our cries” and where narration is “Duped again by the silence, speechless / syllables claiming a void.”

Barker’s imagination reveals a horrific awe for the human.  In “Dog Gospel” he writes, “When I dare at last to imagine hunger,” and we are led into a storyscape of a boy beating an abandoned dog in order to feed his hankering “for something he cannot name.”  In “Guinea Pig Gospel,” Barker takes on the voice of "Exhibit X," one of a hundred and twenty-eight African America men who died as a result of a study of syphilis disguised as “free medical care.” The poem commemorates the lives of these men who were once “young and poor” and who “slept naked in a field listening to bullfrogs,” lamenting the men’s fate “burnt by the blind god of Indifference and Mistakes.”

The third section, the thirteen-page “Crow Gospel Coming Down from the Mountain,” stealthily navigates the rocky terrain of childhood, imagination, memory, and actual experience.  This long poem further explores human iniquity in depicting the racism of Barker’s hometown of Bristol, Virginia.  The poem opens with an invasion of crows and a god who “has turned his back on our town,” then quickly moves into a retelling of the day his third grade class mistook a KKK rally for a parade. Later, the speaker’s grandmother ”(a neat woman,/ A kind woman, a staunch Christian”) tells him: “The coloreds ruin everything/the touch.”  After she asks, “Do you think if you died tonight you’d go to heaven?”, he imagines God as an almost-tangible presence:

            Later when I lay in bed fearing an end
            I couldn’t even imagine, I gave God a body
            And a name, and tried to pray:

            I’m an honest boy, Hoss.
            My heart is clay, Hoss.
            O please Hoss, hollow me out before they do.

Notice the ambiguity of “they” in these lines.  Is “they” the crows who “strutted into town / to roost in the trees”?  Is “they” “Brother Defeat [who] leans against the lamp post, tapping his foot / … tossing cashews to the crows // As Sisyphus… feels the mountain / Crumbling on his back” or “...Little Jimmy Jenkins and his ilk, white-robed, / A few of the men playing instruments, / Zig-[zagging] towards City Hall”?  Or is “they,” in fact the “… black men… // Dirty and exhausted from working / Construction the whole day, dynamiting / … a hole that would become, by summer, / The Lee Tunnel off Highway 81”?  Barker provides no answer; he is more interested in the fallacy of his supposedly Christian upbringing and in the damaging impact that racism has on communities and, particularly, on children.

The poems of the fourth section bore deeper into Barker’s upbringing. In “Muskrat Gospel,” the body of the speaker’s grandfather “begins to return to light.” And the speaker claims that “… if I want to understand, / I must follow him back before dawn... / I must place my hands / on his when he holds his breath / and cracks their velvet necks.”

In “Still Live with “Charlie & Shorty,” we are asked to “let the boy lead you by the hand / close enough to see that this / is not some trick of the light or mirrors.” Later, in “Gospel with Swine & Fire,” the reader is told to return to the beginning, “…your father / undressing in the dark,… / … your mother robed in a cotton gown, / flushed in heat, her chapped hands smoothing / the blanket she’s drawn up under her chin.”

The book’s final section, composed of the eleven-page poem “Monkey Gospel Floating Out to Sea,” declares “Our whole lives are quest and quest,… // A familiar face glimpsed on a busy street, then gone./ A name that can’t find its groove on the tongue.”

Like the books of the Old Testament, which attempt, on one level, to translate the word of God and, on another, to tell a morally instructive tale, The Animal Gospels reveals an equally bifurcated landscape of truth and mythology.  These poems make no attempt to reach ultimate truth; rather, they compel us to enter what Charles Wright calls “The country of Narrative” and to embark on a journey that places the flawed nature of the human self in the expeditionary context of narration.

Brian Barker reminds us, like the mockingbird of “Mockingbird Gospel” “Who sings the song it sang / beneath feather and flesh, its tongs / humming, a tuning fork struck /with breath and blood,” that the story is often “told best by hands.”  While this “quest” may not bring us to a definition of self, The Animal Gospels certainly brings us closer.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

Poems - Bio - Review - Interview

An Interview with Brian Barker by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum                                


Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Even though this poem emanates in large part from your childhood experience(s) with racism, there is a mature and reflective voice active throughout the poem. I often find myself negotiating this sort of perspective rather unsuccessfully. But here it works very well. How do you think this poem manages to navigate this rocky terrain so successfully?

Brian Barker: Thanks. I hope it’s successful. I think that when you’re writing about childhood that this is always an issue: how to negotiate the adult consciousness and the child’s perspective. Honestly, I’m not sure it’s possible to capture the child’s perspective purely since there is always the mature and reflective voice, or poet, behind the scenes shaping the poem. The question is how much of the latter to let filter through, how much you’ll let the adult, the poet, onto the stage. With this poem, I knew that there was a certain complexity of emotion and thought that I wanted that would be impossible to capture with just the child’s perspective. I’m thinking mostly of the more meditative parts of the poem—the meditations on defeat, on poverty, on work—and moments of high lyricism or irony.

So the challenge is how adult consciousness can punctuate the poem, or surface within the child’s perspective, without it feeling contrived or heavy handed. My model for this was, and is, Elizabeth Bishop’s "In the Waiting Room." Part of the power of Bishop’s poem is that it establishes a kind of vulnerability through the simplicity of the child’s perspective—"It was winter. It got dark / early. The waiting room was full of grown-up people, arctics and overcoats, / lamps and magazines." But the poem also needs the long-view of the adult to describe the shock, the out-of-body experience the child feels when she realizes, among other things, her own smallness and the largeness of humanity: "I said to myself: three days / and you’ll be seven years old. / I was saying it to stop / the sensation of falling off / the round, turning world / into cold, blue-black space." Bishop’s poem needs both the child and the adult. It becomes an issue, then, of striking the right balance, finding the right tension between the two views. Bishop does it masterfully. I hope that I’m a fraction as successful in "Crow Gospel."

AMK: I’m curious how much of the poem is, in your mind, a retelling of experience or a transmission of memory. How much of the poem is, in fact, about this "juxtaposition?" How dedicated do you feel this poem is to "the truth?" Did it concern you as you wrote the poem that readers might question a young boy intelligent enough to ask God to "please Hoss, hollow me out before they do"?

BB: Good question. I’m not sure we can separate the two. Any retelling of experience depends on the transmission of memory. For example, we know that if three people witness the same event, there stories of what happened will most likely vary somewhat, and those variations will probably grow over time. That is to say, I see memory as something that is in flux or fluid. In this regard then, the parts of the poem that are autobiographical have been shaped by memory and time. How I remember things happening I’m sure is not how I would find that they actually happened if I were able to return to the moment.

I think that this notion of transmission of memory is separate from the idea of "the truth." That is, there are things in the poem that happened and I wrote them the way I remembered them. There are other things that happened and that I deliberately embellished in the retelling. And there are still other aspects of the poem that I made up entirely. All of this is to say, I guess, that I believe pretty strongly that the poet is not a memoirist or journalist who must write "the truth." The poet’s only fidelity is to the poem itself and not to how things may or may not have happened. I try to pay attention to the larger, universal truth or truths—what the poem is trying to show us about living on this earth. To get these you sometimes have to deviate from actual events, to get lost in the world of myth and imagination. As William Stafford famously said, "You must revise your life."

AMK: Finally, the poem often makes use of repetition. The crows, obviously, come in and out of the poem. Various characters such as the teacher and the clan member, the hands in the second section, the word "it" in the third section, "I" in the sixth, and, of course, "Defeat" comes up over and over. The first word to describe this repetition that comes to my mind is "refrain," but these don’t seem to work as refrains typically do. I’m wondering how you regard the use of repetition in this poem. Is it a musical element? A way to keep a reader engaged in a longer poem?

BB: In certain places in the poem, repetition is used as a kind of musical element, for rhythm and emphasis, as in the word "it" in the third section. But the repetition of certain symbols, ideas, and characters feels more tied up in the poem’s elastic structure and my approach to the subject matter. When I started writing this poem, I was completely paralyzed by the largeness of central subject matter: racism. Every time I tried to take it head on, it was like running into a cinderblock wall. So I started trying to think of ways to refract the subject matter, ways that I could come at it from an angle or angles. (As Dickinson reminds us, "Tell the truth but tell it slant.") This led me to make a few rules for myself that would keep me from moving in too straight of a line. One was that each section of the poem had to try to be different from the one that preceded it. Another, somewhat related, was to try to mix high lyricism and narrative modes. And finally, there would be certain concrete and abstract images central to the narrative—the crows, the mountain, defeat, etc—that would surface and resurface throughout the poem. By allowing these some fluidity to move in and out of the poem, I think I gave them the freedom to change, and I gave myself the freedom to move away from and return to the main story. In the end, I hope this approach helps to keep the reader engaged, but it wasn’t my initial motivation. As always, I was just trying to get the poem right for myself. Only later did I hope that someone might find something interesting enough about it to read the whole thing!

 

An interview with Brian Barker

                                               -by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum


Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Even though this poem emanates in large part from your childhood experience(s) with racism, there is a mature and reflective voice active throughout the poem. I often find myself negotiating this sort of perspective rather unsuccessfully. But here it works very well. How do you think this poem manages to navigate this rocky terrain so successfully?

Brian Barker: Thanks. I hope it’s successful. I think that when you’re writing about childhood that this is always an issue: how to negotiate the adult consciousness and the child’s perspective. Honestly, I’m not sure it’s possible to capture the child’s perspective purely since there is always the mature and reflective voice, or poet, behind the scenes shaping the poem. The question is how much of the latter to let filter through, how much you’ll let the adult, the poet, onto the stage. With this poem, I knew that there was a certain complexity of emotion and thought that I wanted that would be impossible to capture with just the child’s perspective. I’m thinking mostly of the more meditative parts of the poem—the meditations on defeat, on poverty, on work—and moments of high lyricism or irony.

So the challenge is how adult consciousness can punctuate the poem, or surface within the child’s perspective, without it feeling contrived or heavy handed. My model for this was, and is, Elizabeth Bishop’s "In the Waiting Room." Part of the power of Bishop’s poem is that it establishes a kind of vulnerability through the simplicity of the child’s perspective—"It was winter. It got dark / early. The waiting room was full of grown-up people, arctics and overcoats, / lamps and magazines." But the poem also needs the long-view of the adult to describe the shock, the out-of-body experience the child feels when she realizes, among other things, her own smallness and the largeness of humanity: "I said to myself: three days / and you’ll be seven years old. / I was saying it to stop / the sensation of falling off / the round, turning world / into cold, blue-black space." Bishop’s poem needs both the child and the adult. It becomes an issue, then, of striking the right balance, finding the right tension between the two views. Bishop does it masterfully. I hope that I’m a fraction as successful in "Crow Gospel."

AMK: I’m curious how much of the poem is, in your mind, a retelling of experience or a transmission of memory. How much of the poem is, in fact, about this "juxtaposition?" How dedicated do you feel this poem is to "the truth?" Did it concern you as you wrote the poem that readers might question a young boy intelligent enough to ask God to "please Hoss, hollow me out before they do"?

BB: Good question. I’m not sure we can separate the two. Any retelling of experience depends on the transmission of memory. For example, we know that if three people witness the same event, there stories of what happened will most likely vary somewhat, and those variations will probably grow over time. That is to say, I see memory as something that is in flux or fluid. In this regard then, the parts of the poem that are autobiographical have been shaped by memory and time. How I remember things happening I’m sure is not how I would find that they actually happened if I were able to return to the moment.

I think that this notion of transmission of memory is separate from the idea of "the truth." That is, there are things in the poem that happened and I wrote them the way I remembered them. There are other things that happened and that I deliberately embellished in the retelling. And there are still other aspects of the poem that I made up entirely. All of this is to say, I guess, that I believe pretty strongly that the poet is not a memoirist or journalist who must write "the truth." The poet’s only fidelity is to the poem itself and not to how things may or may not have happened. I try to pay attention to the larger, universal truth or truths—what the poem is trying to show us about living on this earth. To get these you sometimes have to deviate from actual events, to get lost in the world of myth and imagination. As William Stafford famously said, "You must revise your life."

AMK: Finally, the poem often makes use of repetition. The crows, obviously, come in and out of the poem. Various characters such as the teacher and the clan member, the hands in the second section, the word "it" in the third section, "I" in the sixth, and, of course, "Defeat" comes up over and over. The first word to describe this repetition that comes to my mind is "refrain," but these don’t seem to work as refrains typically do. I’m wondering how you regard the use of repetition in this poem. Is it a musical element? A way to keep a reader engaged in a longer poem?

BB: In certain places in the poem, repetition is used as a kind of musical element, for rhythm and emphasis, as in the word "it" in the third section. But the repetition of certain symbols, ideas, and characters feels more tied up in the poem’s elastic structure and my approach to the subject matter. When I started writing this poem, I was completely paralyzed by the largeness of central subject matter: racism. Every time I tried to take it head on, it was like running into a cinderblock wall. So I started trying to think of ways to refract the subject matter, ways that I could come at it from an angle or angles. (As Dickinson reminds us, "Tell the truth but tell it slant.") This led me to make a few rules for myself that would keep me from moving in too straight of a line. One was that each section of the poem had to try to be different from the one that preceded it. Another, somewhat related, was to try to mix high lyricism and narrative modes. And finally, there would be certain concrete and abstract images central to the narrative—the crows, the mountain, defeat, etc—that would surface and resurface throughout the poem. By allowing these some fluidity to move in and out of the poem, I think I gave them the freedom to change, and I gave myself the freedom to move away from and return to the main story. In the end, I hope this approach helps to keep the reader engaged, but it wasn’t my initial motivation. As always, I was just trying to get the poem right for myself. Only later did I hope that someone might find something interesting enough about it to read the whole thing!



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Brian Barker