(to be published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in January 2020)
Catherine Barnett’s third collection, Human Hours, is full of questions: many have to do with where we might live, and with whom, while we still can. Barnett asks, in “Accursed Questions, iv,” one of four prose poems that are scattered through the book and sprayed with queries like buckshot, “But who dreamed up this experiment? Are we in it or are we conducting it?” This suggestion of doubling holds true for much of Human Hours; the self is seen from the outside in a number of ways, the primary one being comic.
Barnett refers to her “inner clown” in “O Esperanza!,” and in another poem to “clown class.” This isn’t clown as face-painted balloon-botherer but clown as disrupter and endurer, more Berryman than Bozo. In “O Esperanza!,” her inner clown is “full of hope”: “She’s got a bad case of [hope], something congenital perhaps.” This sort of inveterate hope recalls what the late poet and critic Ian Hamilton called “the voice of remorseless optimism.” “If you’d laugh, I’d feel less alone,” the speaker says in “The Sky Flashes,” a witty riff on Berryman’s “Life, friends, is boring” (from his Dream Songs), in which her congenital hope looks for meaning in an extended conversation with her aging family members:
Is the world more closely allied with chaos
or with order? I asked everyone I love.
Chaos, my sister said, because she’s a doctor.
Order, my mother said,
because she’s an abstract expressionist.
The meaning she discovers is closer to a winning punch line than a reassuring insight. Behind all this reaching for humor is fear, fear of feeling alone and of the allure of nihilism. Barnett writes, “the only real laughter comes from despair, Groucho said,” in a poem that points to another of humor’s virtues—that of innocence, or gullibility (“The vice my uncles most effortlessly forgave”). She may mean innocence of the correct procedure but also innocence as to what the hell is going on:
Geworfenheit is a German term for being thrown into the middle of a game
without knowing the rules.
That pretty much explains it.
After two terser and tighter collections, Barnett has produced a book of longer, more discursive poems and lyric prose. The four prose poems called “Accursed Questions”—a sequence that was a finalist for the Four Quartets Prize earlier this year—have something of the commonplace book to them; they present an opportunity for gathering the insistent questions the narrator feels compelled to ask, as well as serving as a storage facility for digressions. “So much depends upon the kindness of questions. And the questions we cannot not speak of.” The compulsion you sense behind that double negative seems to be driving Barnett’s new foray into prose, as if in the rush to record her most urgent questions, she needs to forgo…
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