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REVIEW of The Conversation

By Róisín Kelly, Southword Journal, 2015 (Ireland)

Two winners of the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize have had poetry collections recently published by Salmon. Judith Barrington’s prizewinning poem, ‘The Conversation’, was an outstanding piece of work in the eyes of 2013 judge Thomas McCarthy, who described it as “mindful, thoughtful, calculated and superbly pre-meditated”. The same could be said about Barrington’s fourth collection of poetry as a whole. The Conversation, taking its title from the aforementioned poem, is an assured collection, the author demonstrating proficiency in her shaping of language and form, and deftness in her handling of the emotions these elements work to convey. Although the emotions found here are often multifarious, the poems are the more moving for their restraint, and never succumb to the verboseness that is typical of much poetry being written today. Barrington’s cool, calm voice is quite enough to get her point across.

 ‘The Conversation’ is written from the point of view of a dead person, and could be said to enshrine the sentiment that "life is for the living". Why would a dead person hang around, the poem asks, when everyday realities such as doctors’ appointments and raising children hold no further significance for them? The poem strikes a tender balance between the loneliness of no longer having to need such things, and the freedom of it. As the poem builds to a fervent reference to the Spanish poet Lorca’s death, there is almost a glimpse of a wild joy to be found even in such a tragic end: “A day later he was dead, going / nowhere except into history, no transport required”. The acknowledgement of an almost inhuman complexity surrounding the fate of all living beings marks this poem as deserving of its prize.

The subject of death recurs throughout the collection, as if to remind us of its own inevitability. Barrington displays an appealing fascination with dying and who gets left behind, and with the strange beauty such experiences can hold. ‘Elegy for a Green Convertible’ is a powerful tribute to a deceased mother, who is symbolised by the car her daughter inherits. The poet is less concerned with the fact of her mother’s death than with the questions it leaves her, evoking the universal mystery that daughters are faced with when dealing with their mothers’ inner lives that they will never truly comprehend:

"[…] But what could I know
of her joy as I raced south on the narrow road,
my mother dead, her sports car held tight between
my careless hands."

It’s reminiscent of Robert Haden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays’, about the poet’s stoic, seemingly emotionless father, and how the poet realises too late how his father’s love was shown in the ritual of getting up before the rest of his family to stoke the fire: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” And Barrington too deals with subject of the elusive, unknowable father figure. ‘What Kind of Creature’ is a reflection on the fathers of Barrington’s generation, more often absent than not—both physically and emotionally. The poet is tormented with wondering what exactly would go through her father’s head when he spent so many days alone in his rowing boat, the poem carrying us as smoothly as a river down to its final, astonishing line: the fish her father catches that “ease into shining death at his feet”. What’s so arresting about this line is the combination of gentleness in the word "ease"; beauty implied by "shining"; and the inescapable fact of death. And the poem ending with a reference to the father’s feet brings to mind a colossal god figure, in whose shadow the poet can only grope for some kind of understanding.

However, ‘Souls Underwater’ is a somewhat self-indulgent musing about drowned souls who might still linger in the ocean depths. There’s not much here that feels new, or particularly worth saying. This is the danger in a shift away from immensely rich, detailed personal poems towards the realm of nature poetry: if a poem feels like it could have been written by anyone, was there much point in the poet writing it in the first place? Of course, that is only the entirely subjective – and perhaps misplaced – desire on my part to always glimpse some part of the poet, whether "real" or fictionalised, in his or her work. In any case, this poem is redeemed by its brief elaboration on one of the ocean’s victims, the sense of a vanished life painted in just a few vivid lines:

"[…] the drunken oilman
who one night staggered to the edge of the spider-legged rig
and dreaming of his girlfriend—unusually tender
in his mind at that dizzy moment—plunged through cans
and plastic trash, into the arms of another."

This poem forms part of a sequence of ocean poems, another of which is titled ‘The Dyke With No Name Thinks About the Sea’. The poem works as both a reflection on the nature of human curiosity about our world, and as a clever metaphor for an examination of the inner self and sexual preference. The correlation between the narrator’s transformation into a sea creature whose body is fluid and undefined in the water and the acceptance of lesbianism is reminiscent of Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving into the Wreck’ in which the poet becomes both “the mermaid whose dark hair streams black” and “the merman in his armored body”. But although Barrington may or may not be engaging with this poetic lineage, the way she thinks about the seabed and what it symbolises translates into some of the most subtle lines I have come across:

"A mile below, unseen, unthought of: land,

not dry, but sandy bottom and rock complete,
she would later learn, with mountain ranges,

canyons—a whole geography ignored
by explorers who seem to prefer the moon."

Every so often, Barrington’s skill brings in the ordinary and everyday into the realm of striking and unusual. A bottle in the sea is described as “cloudy green and crusted with foam”. Lights coming on at dusk in her London suburb are “sudden diamonds”. In ‘Fallen from the Nest’, an anecdote about a man selling songbirds in Barcelona – crushing one that refused to sing – drops a single, shining image into the mind’s eye of what the songbird could have become: “yellow stripes on the wings” that “lengthen as feathers spread, each untucking / from the next until the sky takes them”. The poet empathises with the little bird; with her own “rotten genes” it might have been her fate to be “thrown out before I even began”. But always, Barrington says, there is always something worth preserving in life, if only for its potential; yet there’s no need to worry about mere ‘potential’ when it comes to this collection. Barrington proves that she is a writer who knows how to make full use of her wings.



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