||A Review of: Wanting the Day: Selected Poems
by Mark Callanan
To my great embarrassment, aside from the occasional poem in literary
journals, and possibly a collection along the way during my
undergraduate days, I have not truly read Brian Bartlett. As a
result, I approach Wanting the Day as if it were a keyhole to the
door I've never taken the time to open. In the author's note at the
end of Wanting the Day, Bartlett explains that the poems "are
arranged to reflect the sequence of their original collections,"
but re-ordered within these selections from the originals, "giving
the poems new neighbours" (Camber is similarly shuffled).
While new resonance can be created by such a re-arrangement,
previously undiscovered patterns and themes highlighted and uncovered
by both author and reader in the process, being previously unfamiliar
with Bartlett's work, I can only judge his Selected Poems as a key
to those pieces he himself admires over all others.
Wanting the Day opens with a selection from the 1972 chapbook
Brother's Insomnia, "This Bridge Is No Bridge", a poem
that evidences Bartlett's early acquisition of an ease of expression,
an ability to move fluidly between language that is at once amorphous
as water and solid as the hackmatack to which he refers:
this bridge is no bridge
but a flowering over a flowing, hawkweed
and vetch sprawling where ruts
once filled with rain dead blue lichen
blows off the railing, which has
warped and warped again,
its nails rusted and pinched
The rhyme of "Flowering" and "flowing" carries
through like a stream leading down to "the railing", yet
amid this flow there is the concrete, concussive force of
"hawkweed", "dead blue lichen" and "nails
rusted and pinched", the guttural utterances of "vetch"
and "ruts". Later the reader comes across an image of
"the dry ball of bones / an owl burped up"; the leftovers
that Bartlett describes, in controlled, understated strokes, as
"many histories locked together."
What happens next in this poem seems to me a common failing in
Bartlett's poetry: weak phrasings that try far too hard to be
"poetic". After the stark, disturbing beauty of the owl's
"dry ball of bones", we are left to wallow "in
morning's bright haze" in which
secondhand we see
the dozen dances
but not the dancers:
but water-strider shadows
flick and sway
across the clear underwater sand
While this, in and of itself, is not a bad passage, it pales when
put beside the more potent image of regurgitated bones and the
associative power of "many histories locked together."
Further rough patches appear throughout the collection. In "From
the Upriver Bus" (Planet Harbor, 1989), a man's hand is
"held up - not for a holdup / with a pistol, but for a greeting
/ unpremeditated as a kiss." In "Premire Pdicurie"
from Underwater Carpentry there is "a blue smell foreign as a
horse's eyes." Even in his latest collection, The Afterlife
of Trees, Bartlett continues to undermine his work with weak lines
such as "Sloths swim with the might of eagles flying" in
the poem "Sloth Surprises" or "On days rare as
lightning" from "Lost Footnote from an Essay on Rhythm."
What is most frustrating is that such un-ambitious imagery often
appears within otherwise excellent poems, bringing the reader up
short. "Skylight", a powerful poem that begins with
"The day my cousin shot himself in the head / I was cleaning
the skylight in the hall" (in itself a vicious meat-hook of
an opening), slopes off shamefully into the trite ending: "How
do we deserve such an inrush/ such clear watery light?".
I could pinpoint similar missteps in various poems from each of the
collections, but the truth of the matter is that there is as much
to commend in Bartlett's poetry. When he is on, Bartlett has a
knack for writing lines that slowly uncoil the great length of their
meaning. In "Museum Radiance" (subtitled "man's hat,
ca. 1740"), "A hat under glass is a hat under glass";
the first glass' is a reference to the museum casing that contains
said item of apparel, and the second is a magnifying glass-suggesting
both the fervency with which we examine museum displays and the
anachronistic context within which these pieces appear. The
repetition of "under glass" further implies the voyeurism
of the modern observer. All this is loaded onto a single line!
Overall, Wanting the Day is a solid collection. If it is meant to
be representative of the poems Brian Bartlett most admires, I can't
only one way to resolve that curiosity.