The Gathering Eye
By Tina Barr (Tupelo Press, 72 pp., $14.95)
The poet reads at noon April 1 at the Main Public Library
After millennia of murder, rape, slavery and other worldly atrocities, to embrace the world and welcome whatever may come next is the act of a lunatic or a poet. And to make poems of such a world requires at once both a dispassionate gaze and an unceasing compassionalso a supreme trust in the object, the subject, the event and, ultimately, the word itself. It requires, in short, both vision and humility, two virtues that Memphis poet Tina Barr has in spades.
Barr, whose reading at the downtown library kicks off Nashville's participation in National Poetry Month, has long been admired by other poets. Much anthologized, she's been published in the most respected literary magazines, from The Antioch Review to the Paris Review, and has been nominated for five Pushcart Awards (the annual prizes given to the best poems published in literary magazines that year). She's won fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. She's even been to the MacDowell Colony. But not until now has Barr published a book-length collection of poems.
And what poems these are. Aptly titled The Gathering Eye, Barr's just released collection contains 34 poems set in such far-flung locales as her childhood home on Long Island, the streets of Cairo and Beijing, and deep into Mississippi cotton country, where "The blooms, set inside dry prongs / like gems, burst like popcorn." She is intent in all these landscapes to discover meaning through detail, constructing her truths not through polemic but through precise translation of images. Consider the opening stanza of "Eucharist," where the speaker witnesses Cairo offering itself up for another day:
This morning along the corniche
I hear the arkasus seller, clinking
two brass plates together,
hawking licorice juice.
The zils clack open and shut like clams,
big as saucers in his right hand:
dum dum tekka, dum tekka dum.
Inside the giant glass pitcher
harnessed across his shoulder
black liquid, a pressing of root,
sloshes and roils, foams at the top.
Split into three sections ("Mask," "Red Land, Black Land" and "Green Cathedral"), The Gathering Eye concentrates first on identity. "Twelve Dancing Princesses" and "Bull Pasture," for example, focus on experimenting with different selves, of trying on masks as a prelude to understanding others. The result of that experimentation? "The entrails of others like men-of-war / swollen, trailing in sand so far / from sea. Pieces of them are sewn inside me."
In "Red Land, Black Land," set in contemporary Egypt (red for the color of the desert, black for the silt deposited by the once overflowing Nile), Barr's poems move from the Self to the Other. Here's the opening scene of "The Purpose of Jewelry":
I stared at the tapers of headscarves,
the long sleeves of their blouses,
the white lengths that hid their waists and hips.
Eyes followed over me, my skin, my hair's color.
The subway car was filled only with women.
I wondered about them, about their circumcisions.
Instead of an overt Western judgment on ancient codes, Barr merely presents the scene, albeit with some concern in the final line, leaving reaction and interpretation to the reader. But the most obvious reactionabhorrence at the very idea of a ritual that Western reporters refer to not as "female circumcision" but as "genital mutilation"becomes problematical by the end of the poem, as the penultimate stanza presents a touching scene between an elderly couple: What the West tends to think of as culturally entrenched misogyny may be something else altogether.
Furthermore, this examination of another culture inevitably forces us to look at our own. Here, half-naked and anorexic-looking women are paraded across every medium, not because of anything resembling American respect for women but to sell productsan attitude surely as outrageous to Cairo women as female circumcision is to us. And this is what makes "Red Land, Black Land" so powerful: Through meticulous observation of the Other, we are compelled to see ourselves, to find in ourselves what we see in them.
"Green Cathedral," the book's final section, grapples with reconciliation and redemption, with the ability to embrace life in even its cruelest circumstances. Where several poems in the first two sections contain an undercurrent of emotional violence, here that current is released and transformed, often by the very act of speaking the violence out loud. In "Scars," the collection's next-to-last poem, a character who in an earlier poem could not be asked about her scar,
[...] drew a line from her armpit curving under
her breast, Susannah, who can knit, crochet, speak
Chinese and has two Master's degrees. She told us,
"I tried to cut out my heart."
About another character in the same poem, Barr writes, "Ned's drunk mother, when he was twelve, / said she'd tried to abort him, but it didn't work; / in the tenth month he was born covered in black blood." Susannah and Ned join the speaker's contention that "it no longer matters. / No one can interfere with my own transport." Barr's characters have learned to speak, and as poets and readers of poems know, words contain the power to heal.
Sometimes they offer the only remedy. As the speaker in "Scars" says,
[...] What can I do
except tell you about a morning walk, osage
dropping green globes like small unripe oranges,
a baby rabbit crossing its ears, the bluebird who balances
on barbed wire before the entrance to a tiny house.
What the poet can do is locate beauty in the midst of horror: cotton blooming in slave-plowed fields; a couple holding hands even as "each little girl was told to throw / the skin of her clitoris into the Nile." What Barr does so well is to trust the world, no matter how ugly it may seem, to offer up its inevitable share of beauty. Her recording of the result is often astonishing.
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