BEASTS & VIOLINS by Caleb Barber

Review by Maya Jewell Zeller

by Caleb Barber

Red Hen Press
P.O. Box 40820
Pasadena, CA 91114
ISBN-13 978-1-59709469-6
2010, 104 pp., $19.95

In the effort of full disclosure I would like to say that Caleb Barber is dating my best friend. Okay, they’re more than dating—they live together. They even have chickens together, and a cat named Ivan. That’s why when I decided to write a review about Caleb’s new book, Beasts & Violins, I felt like it might be nepotism. And it might be—except that Caleb and I are not all that close. I mean, I like Caleb. I admire what my friend Rachel refers to as his strong set of personal morals—a code he has developed for himself, because he is human, because he believes one should do good not because that person belongs to any formal church or any governing body, but because it is right. And in doing what is right there are necessary flaws. So, though I do admire this, I don’t know Caleb all that well. But I do know that his poems seem to follow a similar trajectory of doing what is best because it is best for the poem, not for Poetry with a capital P or for the Po Biz, or even for the speaker who, if we’re honest with ourselves (as I think Barber would have us be), we can assume is some version of Barber himself.

This speaker often admits his (and others’) flaws (in person, Caleb laughingly calls this “exploring the personal jerk”), but if we look closely, we notice these shortcomings are often in service of someone else’s emotional stability or in some way offer a favor to the universe (sometimes via a wry humor). Take, for example, the poem “Dear Old Dads,” in which the speaker declares “I’ve been making weekly trips/ to the sanitarium,/ telling all the whackos/ I’m their son,” or the poem “Beast in Me,” in which the speaker confesses to the girl he’s broken up with that he misled her over and over, as in “When I said I would take you camping,/ I meant I would wait until you went/ away to Spain, then go to the hills by myself.” At the end of this same poem, when the ex-girlfriend is complaining to the speaker’s best friend, the speaker admits “Honey, I was only a few blocks away,/ putting the moves on someone new.” Indeed, there does seem to be a kind of beast inside a person who would lie to the elderly and to vulnerable women, but those Dear Old Dads may have found a glimpse of kindness, and the girl he’s putting the moves on might just hang around long enough to be the subject of the book’s closing poems, all somehow about love and redemption, about kindness and the vulnerability of one who’s found a certain music in life.

There is music in the speaker’s life, and there is music in these poems. Though it would be reductive to say Barber is simply derivative of Richard Hugo, he is certainly a descendant. Of course, I’m not the first to say it–Tess Gallagher points this out in a pre-promotional blurb, calling Hugo one of Barber’s “recognizable mentors”–and even Barber’s poem “Over Breakfast” takes its epigraph, “When that rare tourist comes, you tell him/ you’re not forlorn,” from Hugo, telling us

At the Lyman Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge,
I’m reading Richard Hugo while waiting
for my omelet. Then I close the book
and try harder at fitting in. I drink more coffee,
stretch in my seat.

The dish boy wilts in steam. I secretly suspect
the waitress is upset with me
for taking up a whole booth on my own.

You can hear some of the cadence (and internal slant rhyme, and echoes of image) of that old Northwest master in those lines for sure, and in many of the book’s other poems. These poems sing of human experiences casually and beautifully, making clear that Barber is a student of poetic craft—in its myriad forms—and of humanity, in all its terrible transfigurations. Take “In a Twilight Town,” in which the speaker tells us “At these hours a girl shows me the scar/ she earned after her father’s chainsaw/ bucked against her calf while he evened/ the backyard stumps.” There’s no overt metaphor here, but the suggestion of metaphor—that no matter how hard a person tries to make beauty, the byproduct is pain, or at least injury—is echoed throughout the rest of the poem, as we learn more about this girl’s difficult life, which is one destined, it seems, for further complications. The girl explains the injury, and the poet’s description that follows leads us to thinking not about the girl, or the situation, but about America, and what we do in our efforts to make beauty:

                               “It cut clear to my meat,”
she says. “They had to fly me to the city.”
The rough, shiny lump is not grotesque.
Her leg has grown around the wound
same as how trees will hatchet strikes.

She still wears skirts, for now, because
her body won’t be a woman’s for a few
more years, and free magazine offers
don’t come this far out in the country.

It would be easy to miss the simile that compares her leg to a tree, and implies her father was evening the stump of her as he did those in the backyard. Yet, because her body still belongs to childhood, and her childhood to its innocent geography, she “still wears skirts.” And the speaker, who himself belongs to the world of beasts, feels a tenderness toward the girl. He mentions some things he’d like to know, like “how/ the couch felt when it froze through./ But the plane for the mail route is spinning on/ and this place will always be her stop.” As readers, we are left with some of the same curiosity the speaker might have felt, and perhaps the same reverence for unknowing. The speaker recognizes that his conversation with the girl, like twilight, is a rare moment between two worlds, and it won’t last long. He will return to his life, and she to hers, where we can only imagine what happens to her. Meanwhile, “The night makes us all older, and just walking/ toward it, she covers her thighs with the dark.”

So we are left in the dark, like the speaker, who throughout the collection unveils slowly how ignorant he feels of so many of the world’s mysteries, even as he masks this with a bravado, a persona who makes jokes about the people who surround him. Late in the collection, the speaker has been invited to talk about his deceased uncle in “At the Dedication.” He begins: “I didn’t know how to say to the crowd/ I hardly knew the man. I was just shy/ of five when he died.” I proclaimed earlier that the speaker and the author of this book, though obviously distinct, are not completely mutually exclusive. This poem is direct evidence of that. For the past four years, the town of Clatskanie, Oregon, has held an annual Raymond Carver Writing Festival, in celebration and memoriam of Caleb Barber’s late uncle. Part of what’s appealing to me, and what echoes the speaker’s sentiments of being “no ambassador to the dead,/ no dignitary worthy of write-offs,” is that Carver is never mentioned in the poem. So the poem does in its form what it proclaims in its voice—reassures us that it isn’t really an authority. In fact, it seems to hint (much like Twain does in his epigraph to Huck Finn) that there is really no moral in the narrative of life, and that none of us can ever get it right (we can only try). And this proclamation, though perhaps flawed or disappointing, may be more moral, closer to a moral code, than it would be to offer us wisdom. The wisdom is in knowing what not to say—and the poems in Beasts and Violins incidentally say a lot through omission.

In the end, these poems don’t give us any grand revelations about life other than the naked truth, if the truth can be considered a grand revelation. Though it comes at the beginning of the second section, the poem “For the Topless Girls in the Brewery Gulch” does a nice job illustrating the spare quality of the book’s poetry. As the title of the poem suggests, Barber doesn’t romanticize the moment in the slightest:

With wet fur coats framing naked tits,
you danced in the New Year
on the narrow drive between St. Elmo’s Bar
and the Stock Exchange Saloon.
There were three of you. A small posse
in like uniform. Your hair was stuck
to your faces, so when you shook your heads,
the strands tore off strips of foundation.
In the right street light, the negatives
looked like tiger stripes. It was raining.
Tomorrow was a holiday. Everyone knew
this desert water was poison. Of course
you were drunk.

As unappealing as the moment is, it is still memorialized in poetry, lasting forever. And there is something beautiful about strips of peeled-off makeup looking “like tiger stripes” in the rain. It is this homage to the realities of life, here and throughout the speaker’s journey, that makes the book so compelling—it sings the monster out of the mundane.

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