REVIEW by Maria Apichella

NWR Issue r29

Departure Lounge

by John Barnie

A review of one of his previous collections praised John Barnie for ‘not pander[ing] to the heart.’ Yet in Departure Lounge, Barnie directly appeals, in almost a prayerful way, to the heart, asking to be kept alive. Life, as we see in this collection, is to be clung to.

…all day the companionable heart
pumped in the soft factory
of the flesh; Hear me out
I said, as I got into bed, see
me through the night; at dawn
I’ll try again; the heart made
no rely but pumped to itself
while I slept like the dead.


As you might guess from the title, the dead and the dying are very present in this book. Family and friends are remembered, as in ‘A Counter-weight,’ when the poet reports on a suicide: ‘…it was an ordinary do-it-yourself death, /… the bag he chose was a “Bag for Life”, / head cocked ironical at the end.’ The aging body is ever-present. In ‘Neighbours,’ an elderly woman has had a fall. The doctor says she may have to leave her flat, and therefore her independence, to live in a Care Home. She deals with this by changing her will for the second time, maintaining ‘a fragile sense of power.’ TS Eliot writes that old men should be explorers, but the old men in ‘Departure Lounge’ are explorers’ antithesis. In ‘Again and Again,’ they are insouciant: paying ‘with coins from the bank of memory/ withdrawn from circulation a long time ago /…still, they insist, yes, valid from their point of view… / defying us to say otherwise.’

Not only are people falling apart, but the earth is suffering because of wars, waste and damage created by modern life, such as building motorways. And yet this is not an entirely depressing book. Where there is decay there is the promise of new growth. ‘The Book of Common Prayer’ has a beautiful phrase used at funerals: ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ This is Christian liturgy, but in recent years it has been used by non-religious artists as 'a simple meditation on materials and processes of transmutation.’ Barnie, who is an atheist, seems to be doing the same. The earth, in Barnie’s poetry, may be ‘self-annihilating,’ but it is also ‘self-evolving.’ ‘Time never runs out but runs on.’ The dead are ‘burnt-out stars’. In one, Larkin-like, line from the poem ‘Sunday Morning,’ Barnie writes: ‘Start again,’ each generation cries, / after their parents’ generation dies.’ Death is feared and yet looked upon as an inevitable encounter. The author’s feelings about mortality are shown in ‘Escape’, which reminds me of Dylan Thomas’s ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light,’ and yet also makes me laugh for the sheer cinematic, physical comedy it evokes.

I had to run out of the museum,
artifacts laid out in cases, explanations,
as if I wanted to know how an adze was used

by hands I never shook;
‘oh look’; but I couldn’t look;
the polished floorboards sped under me,

the swing doors flashed apart,
and there it was, living people, buses, cars,
the bright habitable world.


This breathless poem captures the essence of Barnie’s latest collection. That is, a realistic acknowledgment of death coupled with a quietly frantic desire for life: agonising at the futility of life while also enjoying spots of joy. Another example of the yin and yang of life is mud. Barnie uses mud as a sinister image for morality. In ‘Mud Again,’ it is mouth-like, trying to suck the poet into the ground: ‘mud grabbed me by the foot and pulled me down, / my leg disappearing into a sucking shaft; / that’ll teach you, I thought it said.’ In ‘News’, mudslides wipe out whole villages: ‘push down houses, / drown the poor.’ And yet, mud is also the stuff of life. In ‘Isn’t it So,’ mud is mulch: ‘broad beans / metamorphose failure into succulence.’

Earthy senses are celebrated throughout. In ‘Les and the Girl,’ a woman’s beautiful copper hair is remembered shining in the sun. In ‘When Darkness Comes’, the poet describes enjoying poached salmon and wine in a summer twilight. ‘The Quarry Field’ is a vivid description of picking mushrooms while a horse snorts and clomps about in the morning light. It is these small, specific celebrations which make ‘Departure Lounge’ less like a dirge than a jazz album. There is something of the book of Ecclesiastes in the overall tone: eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Yet Barnie’s poetry does not advocate hedonism. Rather, he suggests we care for the earth, watch out for our neighbors, and seek out beauty, as he himself has done. ‘Poets,’ he writes, seek ‘a handful of words they hope will shine.’

Maria Apichella’s collection, Psalmody, was shortlisted for a Forward prize for Best First Collection and, in manuscript form, won the Melita Hume Poetry Prize.




Buy this book at gwales.com



       


previous review: Words the Turtle Taught Me
next review: Zero Hours on the Boulevard: Tales of Independence and Belonging



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