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Barnett's Into Perfect Spheres

Depth Without Daring

I must admit, although it seems to me this admission also betrays a weakness, that I am the type of reader who is tempted by titles. I am more tempted by titles than I am by a book’s garment or lack thereof. Therefore, when I surveyed a list of recently published poetry books, Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes are Pierced allured me with visions of presence and absence, knowing and unknowing, wholeness and emptiness, having and withholding, cosmic occurrences and earthly weaknesses; its title suggested that it might be a book that concerned itself with the soul. Its rebellious triple stress in “spheres such holes” seemed to work as a kind of prosodic piercing mechanism, exciting me with the prospect of a potentially daring sense of rhythm.

Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes are Pierced
by Catherine Barnett
Publisher: Alice James Books
Pub. Date: May 2004

The holes that are pierced in Catherine Barnett’s first book, which was chosen by Alice James Books as the winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award, do not concern planetary positions or metaphysical, alchemical circles. The holes have somewhat to do with the soul, in that they concern death. However, the reader will not find the prophet in the poet here; there is no meditation on the nature of the soul after death. Death is likened to “satiny voids in a dead bird’s head.” The body remains a physical body, ultimately transformed into mere dust and ash.

This debut work can be classified alongside other recent books of serial poetry, in which each poem furthers the same story. It used to be that poets published collections, that is, they took a body of work and arranged their seemingly disparate poems, like puzzle pieces, into a cohesive book. This book, however--like Nick Flynn’s Some Ether (Graywolf Press), which concerns itself with the suicide of a mother--is a minute story in verse.

There are two girls in Barnett’s poem, or rather missing from it. They are the narrator’s nieces, aged six and eight, who died in a plane as it crashed fathoms deep into the Pacific: “They say the plane disappeared into the ocean-- / they don’t say anything about the ocean, / how the ocean was changed.” In the perfect sphere of the world, the loss of life pierces, leaving holes in the scenery. There are no physical bodies: “are they here in the dust / in the paper this morning / a partial list of what-was-found / bandana-slash-camera-slash-jeans.” If this book concerns itself with astronomical spheres, it is only to report on what is missing among the heavenly bodies: “stars have been named for her girls / who can’t be seen with the naked eye / though we all pretend to follow the map she draws / into the cloak of holes.”

The mother surveys the sky for falling stars, and throughout the book there is a litany of objects that cannot or will not stay in the sky; there are accidents in the skies. In “While My Sister Sleeps,” the speaker finds the “daughter’s silver coat / has pooled onto the floor, / a dusty moon slipped off its hanger.” The synecdoche of the silver coat standing in for a daughter reminds us that there is a larger hole looming, a hole as huge as the moon that is forever empty.

Objects are confused with things that they are not; objects become what they are not. In “Meditation on Falling,” the speaker observes how illusory the world can appear when one is on the earth looking upward at the sky:

On falling, a shirt
fills with air--like a kite!
A hat flutters, a shoe
might be mistaken for a bird,
a necklace unfasten hook from eye
until the sky

in borrowed clothes
rises through the body

The speaker reminds us, however, that no matter the tricks vision plays, no matter the various arrangements of tattered paper in the wind, the girls will never resume their bodily selves again. From “Duration”:

how cruel--
how in a field of dirt the paleontologist after years of searching
finds the beautiful body,
the fossil--
how the priest dips green leaves into water--
how resurrection--
how my son brings broken sticks to me--
how into the sky my sister stares--

Even the broken sticks, because they have a physical presence, are allowed the rite of mending, the leaves participate somehow in the miracle of resurrection, but the speaker’s nieces will, unlike human remains in an ancient burial site, never be found.

Although I did not find in this book the daring prosodic properties that I was hoping to discover, I found that there still exists poetry that consists of what is said and done when a body is infused with grief and every event becomes infused with coincidental meaning, as if the cosmos itself were furnishing the symbolic: the speaker notices a bird unable to fly, caught in branches; her son makes paper airplanes to hang from his ceiling; a beetle trapped in a jar can walk upside down without falling. The poetry is not constructed from artifice or ornamental language, but is rather found in disturbing coincidences.

I find that I cannot hold my hairbrush now without thinking of the ghosts of the girls. In the poem “Nits,” we learn that the girls were taken by their father because “It was their father’s weekend to take them.” I couldn’t tell, however, if the father was on the plane, if he was still married to the mother, or what became of him, because he does not seem to be missed. The speaker’s sister insisted that the girls should not go; they still had lice, after all. After they left, “she boiled their brushes until like rice the nits / rose to the surface, vanished, then / reappeared as flecks of pale ash in the soapy water.” She took such care to boil and clean everything that “even the smells of their own / bodies washed away.” Again, the synecdoche disturbs because we know that the girls were plunged into water, and their flesh, becoming ash in the blast of the crash, must have mimicked the nits floating in their own death by water.

Resurrection only occurs through the power of metaphor and simile. The girls are like these things, but never actually these things. From “Living Room Altar”:

my sister wants everything back now--

If there were a god who could out of empty shells
carried by waves to shore
make amends--

If the ocean saved in a jar
could keep from turning to salt--

We know that nothing keeps for long. The mother cannot keep for long the possessions of her daughters; she must give them away. Not even the girls’ belongings can remain their belongings. The mother gives away one of her daughters’ board games to the speaker’s son: “a homemade board game / with a sack of marbles and dice. / For a child of six and eight / it must have been ecstasy to count so high!” And I wonder if they did or did not reach 33,000 feet.

Before a loss, what is ordinary is ordinary; it does not mean anything else until after the loss. The girls once used to play by “hiding under the sheet waiting to be found, / digging ditches in the dirt, / blowing out the candles--”. Now these activities are infused with connotations of death, as if it were already foretold and no one, not even the best of the astrologers or sightseers, can cast the star charts, make the proper predictions.

The elegy certainly has a long history in English poetry, the most enduring being Milton’s “Lycidas,” Shelley’s “Adonais” and Tennyson’s In Memoriam. This is not to suggest that Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes are Pierced will rise to such ranks, but rather that there exists a natural instinct in humans to become makers in their grief. Those of us inclined to language write.

This is not the book to pack with you to “read on the plane,” obviously, and it isn’t the book to open if you are looking for (how do all the blurbs read these days?) “a daring, new voice in poetry.” You will not find experimentation with form or language, but for these poems, I think that is a strength. Barnett’s poems are well written, and she fills out nicely the formal parameters that she sets out for them.

What makes Barnett’s book especially poignant is that today people are, more than ever, afraid of dying in plane crashes, as opposed to dying from typhoid, consumption or wagon accidents on wooden bridges in an idyllic English countryside. Air travel itself is a sublime irregularity that occurs on a regular basis: it transports us over great distances in short periods of time and lifts us away from our usual lives, yet even the best student of physics finds the whole ordeal counter-intuitive. Air travel, therefore, coupled with another anomaly—massive death—is too terribly sublime, too irrational for our poetic forms to comprehend.

Barnett’s “sphere” is not the heavenly sphere to which Shelley’s souls go in his elegy. Hers is a world where “every window is a curse, / something to break that shatters.” Barnett transforms the grief and “make[s] the broken faces swimming back to us / come whole.” She does this with a quiet eloquence, forgoing the elevated pitch and ornamental nature that Shelly ascribes to death, which suggests in its own manner that the dead do indeed rise again; the girls’ ghosts are whatever haunts, whatever holes suggest a missing body--the hairbrushes that we can no longer hold, the sky forever lacking what we need.

Jenny Boully is a renowned young poet and critic based in New York. Moveable Type appears every other Sunday.