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The Conversation

Judith Barrington

ISBN: 978-1-908836-94-6

Page Count: 80

Publication Date: Friday, March 13, 2015

Cover Artwork: Laura Ross-Paul, “Balls and Balance,” 1996, oil and wax on canvas, 68” x 48”, Courtesy of Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR, USA


About this Book

“This is a brilliant technical achievement; it reminds us all that great poetry is both fine thinking and achieved style. The narrator describes and teaches, telling us that death – and death in life – is ‘too late now for that conversation we never had’ – We can’t leave ‘The Conversation’ without becoming implicated in its anxieties. Technically, this is a mindful, thoughtful, calculated and superbly pre-meditated work. I have no hesitation – dare I say it, no anxiety? – in advocating it as my winning poem for the Gregory O’Donoghue Prize.”  

Thomas McCarthy
Writing of the title poem, which he selected as winner of the 
Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Competition


Author Biography

Judith Barrington has published three other poetry collections: Horses and the Human Soul; History and Geography; and Trying to Be an Honest Woman, and two chapbooks: Postcard from the Bottom of the Sea and Lost Lands. Among her awards is the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize for 2013. She is also the author of Lifesaving: A Memoir (winner of the Lambda Book Award and runner up for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the memoir) and the best-selling Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art

Judith has been a visiting writer at many universities. She teaches in the USA, Britain, and Spain and has been a faculty member of the MFA Program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. 


Reviews

Review: D A Prince reviews The Conversation for The North, Issue No.56, August 2016

Judith Barrington's three previous collections were published in the USA and this explains, in part, why her name is unfamiliar. Winning the Gregory O'Donoghue International Poetry Competition in 2013 (with The Conversation', the title poem of this collection brought her to Ireland and a meeting with Salmon Press: this is the outcome, and a fruitful one. She lives in Oregon but her roots are British: she was born in wartime Brighton, as the opening poem tells us, and has also lived in Spain. All this is background to the main themes of loss and love that connect the three sections; these are poems rising out of experience. She closes her description of Brighton beach, with its barbed wire coils and bombs buried in the shingle, with "This is my worid./1 have to learn to love it." In that *have to* is a foretaste of more than simple growing-up. Barrington is introducing the personal resilience required for the long process of losing family and friends. 

It's this resilience that drives the poems. 'The Conversation' is about the one conversation we can't have: conversation with the dead. Barrington imagines herself dead, being ignored just as she, in life, had been otherwise occupied - 

It’s not that I blame them: how often have I too turned
back to my living life, leaving the dead to hover
around in dreams or pop into sight as a back view
walking with a familiar gait towards the park?
Just because I’m dead now, I can hardly ask them
to hang out nearby, lost for language,
lost for gesture, lingering just to show willing.

Colloquial: matter-of-fact language about something that isn't everyday at all; the idiomatic 'pop into' and hang out'; 'lost' repeated. The argument about whether death is The End runs through the poem, a 'what if question. In 'Elegy for a Green Convertible' Barrington describes driving to Spain, her dead mother's sports car leld tight between/ my careless hands: That 'careless' s more than just her driving; it's the lack of care for the survivors that a death brings -

But I neglected it just as we all neglected 
the two old dogs, lost without mothers sweet talk.

There's 'lost', again. Her father was one of 'those unknowns', one whose routines took him out of the family all day and fishing, in solitude, at weekends: only after his death does Barrington recognise the loss. and the lack of conversation on both sides. Her sister (in 'My Sister, Who Used to Be a Concert Pianist') is lost to conversation even while alive - "solid chunks of her memory/were falling out, leaving spaces like doorways/ or window squares in the crumbling/ walls of a ruined cathedral." In 'Drinking with My Dead Brother' death comes in as "... the ambassador in his black hoodie/ wielding his bloody implement"; in 'Ready or Not' death is female until "... out she hops/ and locks onto my shoulders like an angry parrot." These are poems about death where the on-going conversation is with us, the readers, in our shared idioms. 

The Conversation is in three sections; all these poems are in the first. The third section, 'Long Love', balances Loss with the sustaining power of love, although the possibility of loss remains ever-present. In 'Shopping for Death' a couple search together for an appropriate burial plot, not knowing which will die first; in Corazon five stanzas of vivid description ('... moments that shine through time') hang between the opening 'Casa something or other - I forget its name' and the final line when the lost name returns to memory. The closing poem, 'Lost Lands' brings her many strands of lost together - places where poets, lovers, thoughtful people/ made the old mistake of going back' - but yet she tries, despite the risk of disillusionment, to where 'The word was honeysuckle; the life was sweet.’

The central section - The Book of the Ocean, eleven sea-inspired poems - does not show us. directly, why Barrington has included them among these poems of loss and love. It is to her credit that she does not tell the readerthat her parents drowned when their ship caught fire, when she was only nineteen. This collection has more to hold its poems together than at first appears.



Review: The Conversation reviewed by Róisín Kelly for Southword (Issue 28, July 2015)

Judith Barrington’s prizewinning poem, ‘The Conversation’, was an outstanding piece of work in the eyes of 2013 judge Thomas McCarthy, who described it as “mindful, thoughtful, calculated and superbly pre-meditated”. The same could be said about Barrington’s fourth collection of poetry as a whole. The Conversation, taking its title from the aforementioned poem, is an assured collection, the author demonstrating proficiency in her shaping of language and form, and deftness in her handling of the emotions these elements work to convey. Although the emotions found here are often multifarious, the poems are the more moving for their restraint, and never succumb to the verboseness that is typical of much poetry being written today. Barrington’s cool, calm voice is quite enough to get her point across.
            ‘The Conversation’ is written from the point of view of a dead person, and could be said to enshrine the sentiment that "life is for the living". Why would a dead person hang around, the poem asks, when everyday realities such as doctors’ appointments and raising children hold no further significance for them? The poem strikes a tender balance between the loneliness of no longer having to need such things, and the freedom of it. As the poem builds to a fervent reference to the Spanish poet Lorca’s death, there is almost a glimpse of a wild joy to be found even in such a tragic end: “A day later he was dead, going / nowhere except into history, no transport required”. The acknowledgement of an almost inhuman complexity surrounding the fate of all living beings marks this poem as deserving of its prize.
            The subject of death recurs throughout the collection, as if to remind us of its own inevitability. Barrington displays an appealing fascination with dying and who gets left behind, and with the strange beauty such experiences can hold. ‘Elegy for a Green Convertible’ is a powerful tribute to a deceased mother, who is symbolised by the car her daughter inherits. The poet is less concerned with the fact of her mother’s death than with the questions it leaves her, evoking the universal mystery that daughters are faced with when dealing with their mothers’ inner lives that they will never truly comprehend:
 
"[…] But what could I know
 
of her joy as I raced south on the narrow road,
my mother dead, her sports car held tight between
 
my careless hands."
 
It’s reminiscent of Robert Haden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays’, about the poet’s stoic, seemingly emotionless father, and how the poet realises too late how his father’s love was shown in the ritual of getting up before the rest of his family to stoke the fire: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” And Barrington too deals with subject of the elusive, unknowable father figure. ‘What Kind of Creature’ is a reflection on the fathers of Barrington’s generation, more often absent than not—both physically and emotionally. The poet is tormented with wondering what exactly would go through her father’s head when he spent so many days alone in his rowing boat, the poem carrying us as smoothly as a river down to its final, astonishing line: the fish her father catches that “ease into shining death at his feet”. What’s so arresting about this line is the combination of gentleness in the word "ease"; beauty implied by "shining"; and the inescapable fact of death. And the poem ending with a reference to the father’s feet brings to mind a colossal god figure, in whose shadow the poet can only grope for some kind of understanding.
            However, ‘Souls Underwater’ is a somewhat self-indulgent musing about drowned souls who might still linger in the ocean depths. There’s not much here that feels new, or particularly worth saying. This is the danger in a shift away from immensely rich, detailed personal poems towards the realm of nature poetry: if a poem feels like it could have been written by anyone, was there much point in the poet writing it in the first place? Of course, that is only the entirely subjective – and perhaps misplaced – desire on my part to always glimpse some part of the poet, whether "real" or fictionalised, in his or her work. In any case, this poem is redeemed by its brief elaboration on one of the ocean’s victims, the sense of a vanished life painted in just a few vivid lines:
 
"[…] the drunken oilman
 
who one night staggered to the edge of the spider-legged rig
and dreaming of his girlfriend—unusually tender
in his mind at that dizzy moment—plunged through cans
and plastic trash, into the arms of another."
 
This poem forms part of a sequence of ocean poems, another of which is titled ‘The Dyke With No Name Thinks About the Sea’. The poem works as both a reflection on the nature of human curiosity about our world, and as a clever metaphor for an examination of the inner self and sexual preference. The correlation between the narrator’s transformation into a sea creature whose body is fluid and undefined in the water and the acceptance of lesbianism is reminiscent of Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving into the Wreck’ in which the poet becomes both “the mermaid whose dark hair streams black” and “the merman in his armored body”. But although Barrington may or may not be engaging with this poetic lineage, the way she thinks about the seabed and what it symbolises translates into some of the most subtle lines I have come across:
 
"A mile below, unseen, unthought of: land,
 
not dry, but sandy bottom and rock complete,
she would later learn, with mountain ranges,
 
canyons—a whole geography ignored
by explorers who seem to prefer the moon."
 
Every so often, Barrington’s skill in brings the ordinary and everyday into the realm of striking and unusual. A bottle in the sea is described as “cloudy green and crusted with foam”. Lights coming on at dusk in her London suburb are “sudden diamonds”. In ‘Fallen from the Nest’, an anecdote about a man selling songbirds in Barcelona – crushing one that refused to sing – drops a single, shining image into the mind’s eye of what the songbird could have become: “yellow stripes on the wings” that “lengthen as feathers spread, each untucking / from the next until the sky takes them”. The poet empathises with the little bird; with her own “rotten genes” it might have been her fate to be “thrown out before I even began”. But always, Barrington says, there is always something worth preserving in life, if only for its potential; yet there’s no need to worry about mere ‘potential’ when it comes to this collection. Barrington proves that she is a writer who knows how to make full use of her wings.

© 2015 Róisín Kelly



Review: The Conversation reviewed by Cindy Stewart-Rinier for The Critical Flame: A Journal of Literature & Culture

An “independent seat” is a rarely achieved height of equestrian skill, in which mechanical command and response are transformed into a fluid conversation between the bodies of horse and rider. It is a kind of attunement that can be accomplished only through the bodily memory that long practice creates.

A rider and a writer for most of her life, Judith Barrington exhibits such a level of skill in her latest collection of poetry, The Conversation. With the urgency and clarity engendered by a recent brush with death, the book traverses the varied terrains of the poet’s life. Beneath the individual conversations, which constitute the more overt subjects of these poems, is the meta-conversation within and between them, subtle and responsive as the communications between the accomplished rider and her mount.

The collection is divided into three parts, each of which loosely represents the poet’s significant geographies. The first section, “My World,” locates the reader at the intersection of the domestic and public. The opening image of the section, “Tumbled like tumbleweeds, barbed wire / rolled across the top of the beach,” establishes Barrington’s earliest landscape—World War II–era Brighton, England—as one marked both by death and a sense of prohibition, just as the later statement, “Obedience equals life / in forty-four” infers its real and possibly fatal consequences of transgression. Though the poem closes with the end-stopped declarative lines, “This is my world. / I have to learn to love it,” they are conspicuously set off to the right, against half-lines of empty space, as if to embody utterance against the silence of the dead, acceptance against resistance.

Those lines lead brilliantly into the title poem, “The Conversation,” which Thomas McCarthy selected as the winner of the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Competition. Here, the speaker negotiates her way between the desire for the conversation that might bring, if not resolution, then at least a better understanding between the living and the dead, and her stolid belief that “the end is the end.” But even as this poem embraces death’s intransigent boundaries, it resists them as well, alternating between the views of bereaved and deceased. Barrington elegantly picks her way through a nuanced dialogic whose overt stance is undercut by the fact of its own imaginative act.

Her decision to leave the actual content of the conversation unspecified is another example of Barrington’s skillful touch. A less experienced poet might have felt compelled to pin it down, to direct meaning along a narrower, more personal path. But here, her looser rein requires the reader engage the poem directly, by furnishing material about the speaker’s, or her own, unfinished business with the dead. It also allows the subsequent poems to range unimpeded, so that The Conversation, as the collection’s title gathers a rich multivalence.

Many of these poems engage with the larger literary tradition. Interestingly, Barrington tends to reference male writers by name, quoting their material, while the work of key women writers remains unnamed. It is as if these women’s voices have become such a naturalized part of Barrington’s sensibility—and that of her assumed reader—that she feels no need to allude to them. For instance, she makes no overt mention of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Fish,” though its echo is clearly audible in “What Kind of Creature,” which executes a reversal of image and meaning.

A central figure in the book is Barrington’s own father. “Inscrutable” explores their relationship. The stanza that indicts her father’s superficiality—“Death’s no excuse for life on a train / or a series of boats; for a library book / known only by the color of its cover, no title”—is followed by a stanza in which Barrington interrogates herself. “Is it worse that I find no excuse for myself?” she asks. “I share with him those same fifty years / and can hardly claim to have spoken new words.” But it is in “The Engineer” that her father’s inscrutability becomes most poignant, and its significance to Barrington, and to the collection, becomes most clear. The poem draws a portrait of a man whose earnest performance of fatherly duty limits how he, and by extension his family, relates to the larger world:

My father kept charts, marked journeys on Michelin maps,

crayoned color columns of various heights

on the graph paper he taped to the garage wall.

Oil changes, spark plugs, tire rotations, but no

stories to match the maintenance: no reminiscing

about roads whose hairpin bends were ribbons

looped around the flanks of Swiss mountains,

their furious drop-offs waiting to be fed

by careless cars—never ours of course.

Spark plug gaps were recorded in decimal points

and dark blue Parker Quink that faded over time

like old-fashioned ledgers, the credits and debits

of family vacations never discussed, not even when

his fourteen-month-old Vauxhall skidded to a stop

beside the French road so I could throw up my

prix-fix three course dejeuner, and later on, the French

snack my mother thought would settle my stomach.

His stories were wordless: documents, photographs,

and 8 millimeter movies that jumped and trembled

as he shot scene after scene through the windshield

on a rutted road, never turning his lens to the side

where big white cows were as foreign as

the routier where I stopped for lunch

and yet again I vomited into a ditch.

By the poem’s closing questions, “…what went on inside his head / when he looked at the façade of Chartres Cathedral— / Load bearing? Acid rain on stone?” the difference between the way father and daughter each apprehends the world has been established by the poet’s capacity to make music of his mechanistic orientation.

The poem revs with the rhythm of the lists in the first three stanzas, before the rubber hits the road in the fourth, and the sentence lengths expand, gather velocity until the end-stopped line in the middle of the sixth stanza taps the brakes. The next sentence builds momentum before it comes to an abrupt stop at the end of the eighth, when the speaker vomits into the line’s monosyllabic last word, ditch. It functions so much like a high-performance engine, with all its parts working beautifully together (not unlike the collection itself), that despite the negative effects of the father’s slavish attention to structure, it is clear that Barrington has successfully internalized its gifts.

Nevertheless, when the speaker utters the final statement—“He never said”—its flat, hard, emotional truth not only serves to close the poem, but the end of this line of probing as well. She seems to push off of the statement as if it were a platform from which she has determined to plunge deep, and to say.

The second section, “The Book of the Ocean,” depicts the unconscious, whose mysterious depths contain the elementals necessary for authentic self-becoming, for a life deeply engaged in being and in art. It immediately subverts what “My World” had raised up. Barrington trades in driving over for diving into, a move that shifts value from breadth to depth, while its imagery simultaneously evokes the physical sea in which her parents both drowned, as well as the subconscious. Its title poem declares:

The book of the ocean is the greatest

and the most neglected. It floats in shadows

under rock shelves; it laps at the edges

of dreams—a reminder of the deep dark

into which we dive nightly, a reminder

of the moon that hauls us and hurls us

on the brink of wrinkled lands where once

we staggered ashore, trying to become human.

What felt like a resistance in Part One becomes open transgression, transvaluation, and transformation as Barrington submerges into this lyrical space. She encounters and engages with what her inherited world would surely have designated abject (think Julia Kristeva’s The Powers of Horror): the dead bodies of her parents, the octopus that is a stand-in for her own inscrutable shadow self, the feminine/lesbian body and its fluids, grief and her own death. Rather than see them as objects of horror, she recognizes them as vital constituents of that dark and protean world below the surface from which language, identity, art, and life itself derive their power, resonance, and profundity.

“The Musician’s Seamounts” beautifully embodies the reversal of the symbolic order in the figure of a submerged mountain range (each mountain named for a famous Classical composer), where, rather than climbing higher, read: subliming, the quest is to to descend to the place where the earth itself is humming “cantabile / through an ancient, cracked, tectonic throat.” The shift re-sacralizes the natural world, dissolves the boundary between human and nature.

Hovering in the liminal space between life and death, “Night Dive” signals this dissolution as well. Its speaker enters an oceanic soundscape, full of both noise and profound silence, theoretical and literary allusion—not the least of which is Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck.” There, Barrington begins to register “the music / of all those who drum on the walls of swim bladders— // all who like crickets saw and scrape / in pleasing discord, like an orchestra tuning up” not in her ears, but in the flesh of her body. “She can feel them vibrate, as if she’d acquired / a fish’s lateral line along her flank / to pick up messages winding through the brine.” The gradual, literal and figurative reclamation of the body in “The Book of the Ocean” foreshadows the stance Barrington will take when she rises toward “not who she was, but who she will become”

Barrington gives voice to the body in the opening poem of the final section, which inhabits the ecosystem of her consciously chosen life: the identity, relationships, feminism, and art she has cultivated on American soil. “When Did It Start” asks when the body’s “conversation / with the world, so different / from conversations made with words” began. Her final stanza answers: “The words say: this will pass. / The body says: Listen. / Words say: tomorrow. The body says: Now.”

A sense of urgency and heightened awareness rises from the physicality of this poem and of those that follow. Barrington wisely balances that earnestness with wit, delightfully conflating her lover’s long legs with their enduring relationship in “Long Love,” a good-natured riff on Rumi in “The Wound,” and a description of grave-shopping that parodies house-hunting in “Shopping for Death.” But it’s her penultimate poem, “Not a Credo,” which most powerfully informs the collection’s conversation.

Anti-religious (or at least skeptical) from its title onward, ”Not a Credo” questions the human need for and consequences of religion. The poet lies on a beach—a natural environment inhabited by human and non-human, domesticated and wild, animal alike. In the first section she asserts, “They so diminish this / who call it god—or even god’s best work.” In the next, she continues with an interrogation of the need to “conjure a deity from forests / where stands of trees / are trunk and branch and leaf— / not cathedrals made of heavy stone.”

One of those who dares to reject “the rules, the threats,” the “hundred distractions from death,” “the tricks / pulled off by the wizard in his cloak, / the priest in his gown, rabbi, imam, pious clown,” Barrington confers onto the physical world a sense of intrinsic sacredness. She rejects the religiosity that has, for so long, been the source of its subjugation and degradation. This rejection—especially after the brain injury that brought her minutes away from death—lends a powerful authority to her stance. It creates a sense of intimacy between the body of the poet and the world she portrays that feels earned, authentic, and utterly necessary.

The Conversation is, ultimately, both brave and generous. By enacting her own dialogue between memory, the unconscious, and the body in the face of death, Barrington acts as an unflinching and sure-footed guide for those readers who choose to go along for the ride, her attunement becoming our own.



Review: The Conversation reviewed by Julie R. Enzner for LAMBDA Literary

Judith Barrington’s fourth collection of poetry, The Conversation, continues one that she has been having with readers of poetry since Trying to be an Honest Woman. Like her earlier collections, keen attention to stanza form, strong lines and musicality characterize these poems chiefly.

Barrington divides this collection into three parts: “The World”, “The Book of the Ocean”, and “Long Love”. Opening with “My World”, Barrington shares, “It’s a female, bustling world, this house where I’m born/under the left-handed Full Mead Moon of July.” The final couplet reveals, “This is my world./I have to learn to love it.”

Barrington revels in the work of loving the world— even, or especially, as age brings another layer of complexity to this labor of love. In the title poem, she writes of Federico García Lorca a day after his arrest being “dead, going//nowhere except into history, no transport required.” Death, or at least the specter of it, is omnipresent in these poems, from moments the speaker reads the paper and considers the lives and deaths of people her age, to the moment when death “hops/and locks onto my shoulder like an angry parrot.” She reflects on changes as lovers age:

The thing is, when you grow old you fail to notice your lover’s legs very often. Love-struck gives way to love-soaked, a softer state in which legs are taken for granted–

Barrington’s poems invite us to take little for granted in this world we must love. The Conversation joins her earlier three full-length collections, Horses and the Human Soul, History and Geography and Trying, with her two chapbooks, Lost Lands and Postcard from the Bottom of the Sea. In addition to her work as a poet, she is literary memoirist; Lifesaving won a Lambda Literary Award in 2001. Her edited anthology, An Intimate Wilderness: Lesbian Writers on Sexuality, was a Lambda finalist in 1992.

Compounding her literary achievements, Barrington also has made significant contributions to feminist and lesbian literary communities. She was an organizer of Soapstone, a women writer’s retreat on Soapstone Creek. She evokes this work in the poem “Ghosts of Soapstone,” writing “You’ll know them by the/persistent watery soundtrack that splashes their lines.” Water whispers to readers throughout The Conversation, reminding us of its poet’s importance to literature.



Review:  The Conversation reviewed by Maggie Trapp for Daily Dose of Lit (June 3, 2015)

It can’t be an accident that the word revenant shows up, by my count, three different times in Judith Barrington’s latest poetry collection, The Conversation. In this new work, Barrington is often concerned with returns and remains, with what leaves and what gets left behind. These are poems that mark loss as well as gain, lines that welcome back as often as they say goodbye. We witness death and loss here, just as we are invited to consider new perspectives on both.
The speaker in these poems discloses the various chapters and choices of her life, her underwater revelations while diving, her unwell sister and her dead brother, her childhood in England as well as her partner of 34 years. We read about grief, about looking back at your life from the vantage point of middle age and beyond, about illness, about discovery, about fear, and about love.

Barrington has a way of taking ordinary incidents and making us feel about them more than we expected to feel. She shows us what we didn’t expect to see, or, more precisely, she shows us what we might expect to see as well as what we didn’t even know was there underneath our expectations. These lines are elegies and celebrations at once. Her poems play with ideas of the revenant as well as with ideas of verse itself: turns and returns, verse and reverse. Barrington teaches us to read that which returns; she opens our eyes to what is lost and what is then, despite everything, gained.

The Conversation is filled with gorgeous lines and arresting images. In “Night Dive” we read of a diver returning to the surface:

Up through a stream of her own breath’s bubbles—
up towards where the sea ceiling gleams,
she rises, each fathom bringing her closer to air,
and closer to—not who she was but who she’ll become.

We hear “up towards where the sea ceiling gleams” and we need to stop for a moment, the language is so lovely and lilting, the assonance and slant rhyme working on us so subtly. And here we see again Barrington’s trope of loss, return, and gain. This diver returns—not to what she was, but to who she’ll become. As with many moments in these poems, a speaker returns changed, and it is this alteration that allows her, and us, to see things anew.

In “Drinking with My Dead Brother” the speaker opens by recalling her brother’s favorite toast—“May You Live Forever”—adding that he did not, in the end, manage to live up to his own cheery prompt. Now that he has died, the speaker facetiously wonders if she and her sister will indeed live forever. The ailing sister has no memory now of who her family members are; the speaker is the only one of the siblings who is left to remember what has been lost. We read,

Still, I admit that not knowing what’s to come
could drive a person to drink. My sister and I
clink glasses—she not remembering who I am,
and I remembering all too well her former self:
the one who sat me on her knee and read to me;
my former self too, exploring tales
of badger and the mole: sisters
spelling our way into what seemed like forever.

These are wistful, elegiac lines that remind us of what we can’t help losing, as well as what we will always keep. Here, as in many of the poems in The Conversation, the past mingles with the present, and the future as once seen in the past is now recognized as the altered, unanticipated, but still-loved present. Barrington allows us to feel these losses as well as these gains. What returns is always different than that which left. But, as Barrington suggests, we can come to recognize the beauty in this.
 
Maggie Trapp teaches literature and writing for UC Berkeley Extension. She has a PhD in English, and she’s currently getting her MFA in writing. She is the staff poetry reviewer for Extract(s). Email our editor to suggest your book. Please use “Poetry Book Review” as the subject.




Review: The Conversation reviewed by Kirsten Rian for The Oregonian (April 2015)

In 1990, the Voyager I space probe took a photograph of Earth from 6 billion kilometers. At that distance, our planet appeared as a speck, a tiny 'pale blue dot' as the image became known. And on this tiny dust mote out in space, all the life and death and love and trying and imagining and making and smiles and dancing and tears and hopes of all six billion of its inhabitants happens.  A photograph like this makes one feel big and small all at the same time. Brain surgery can have that affect, too. 

Portland poet Judith Barrington spent the turning over of 2013 into 2014 in the hospital with surgery and recovery from a brain bleed. A year later she's produced a dense and beautiful book of poems (her first new full-length book of poems in more than 10 years) entitled "The Conversation," published by Salmon Poetry, that looks back over her childhood, her family, her memories, her grief.

"Consider again that dot," astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in 1994. "That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering...."

The "aggregate of our joy and suffering" is our life. And Barrington's poems explore her recent and ongoing medical crises alongside the expanse of her history with the kind of clarity only found through a lot of loss.

"This is my world./I have to learn to love it." closes the first poem in the collection and this learning involves assessing and remembering. Memory is like water is like music, capable of enveloping and washing over. Barrington does not deflect this encompassment, but rather allows it to fill the empty spaces of forgetting, and spill into the conversation about what is thought to be known about legacy, about one's history.

In the poem "The Conversation," Barrington writes, "... The end may be/the end, though some piece of me, not quite finished,/has kept the words that belong in that talk/stuffed inside my mouth which is firmly closed" -- it's not a reconciliation, clean and considered, that allows the conversation with one's past or with people long since gone to continue. It's recognizing the impermanent remains, though formless; the "mechanical gestures of living," as poet William Carlos Williams wrote in his seminal book "Paterson" live on as remnants of gestures; it's unfurling the revolution of living and dying across the landscape of hopes and dreams and disappointments and calling it our own. 

Barrington achieves this level of honesty with the untangling at times, and tying up at others, of her past and present by directly stating the events and how they happened, and her feelings and their resonance. This clarity is part craft, to be sure, Barrington has been steadily writing for over five decades. But this voicing is also reflective of the poet herself, who has chosen to not encumber the nuance of her internal and external observations with unnecessary metaphor or figurative language. Her diction articulates with ease and intones emotions as well as events. Her poems are thoughtfully constructed, with stanzas, couplets and line breaks ending before becoming dependent on a syntactical trick or a sudden turn of story.

Her construction choices to relay content are also apparent in the book divisions - three sections, Part One: My World; Part Two: The Book of the Ocean; and Part Three: Long Love. Water figures prominently throughout the book, and as Barrington detailed in her memoir published in 2000, "Lifesaving," her parents drowned following a cruise ship fire in 1963. The first stanza of the poem "The Book of the Ocean" that opens part two melds the natural world with grief, the hypothetical with the concrete. 

"They've all written their books: the wind

with its scattering of seeds, its steady erosion

of terraced hills, histories carved in the gray faces

of cliffs whose grief it transcribes into song."

Beauty and song somehow survives, reaching for land while looking for water.

"I've been too attached to my own memories." Barrington writes in "Those Three Lost Days," a poem in the third section describing the days she can't remember during the chaos of the discovery of the subdural hematoma and subsequent brain surgery to relieve the pressure of the blood building up at the hematoma. In some respects, this collection of poems is about remembering the memories that have attached themselves, so that they and what they represent may be re-remembered, in a slightly different, slightly less-edged context, backfilled with the wisdom of experience and age and simply living on.

In the second to the last poem in the book "Not a Credo," Barrington notes, "The light, the incredible light of every day/is followed not by darkness/nor even silence,/but, low and behold, the greatest emptiness emptied."  

Reading: The book launch for "The Conversation" is  May 2 at Concordia University's George R. White Library, 2800 N.E. Liberty St. Barrington will sign books at 3 p.m. and will read at 4 p.m. 

Kirsten Rian is a Portland writer.


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