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REVIEW of The Conversation

By D.A. Prince, The North, No. 56, August 2016 (UK)

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 held 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 cornes 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 shoulder 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.




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