Wendy Barker

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

Wendy Barker
Air Date: May 27, 2010

Wendy Barker
Aaron, on our last show I talked about Robert Frost. Then my most recent copy of The Southern Review arrived, and there were two poems by my friend Wendy Barker—one of them is titled, “The Last Time I Taught Robert Frost.” I love all Wendy’s poems, but her latest series, from the point of view of a poet and a professor of English (she teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio), I’m particularly crazy about, of course, because it’s my own perspective. That’s not enough to say, though about why Wendy’s poems work. They open way out. Take this one about Frost, for example. Her mind takes us from her students to her dying father without a hitch in the movement. And what isn’t said in this poem is a great deal. All the unspoken tensions of the father-daughter relationship get directed into the poem, and when she has her students recite it after his death, that something unspoken is—I started to say resolved, but it’s not. It’s transformed so that you feel it’s going to inform her relationship with the world after this. Here’s the poem:

THE LAST TIME I TAUGHT ROBERT FROST

I shuddered when Olivia, who is writing her dissertation
on dialectics of the self in Gloria Anzaldua, announced she found him
lovely. “Lovely?” I cried, professional composure shot,
my image of Frost collapsing suddenly as the Great Stone Face
on Cannon Mountain, the craggy Old Man fallen in shards
to the ground. True, this was not on par with the vandalizing
of his house in Vermont, Homer Noble Farm’s wicker chairs,
wooden tables, dressers smashed and thrown into the fire to keep
the place warm while thirty kids swilled a hundred and fifty
cans of Bud with a dozen bottles of Jack Daniel’s, and threw up
on the floor. After all, Olivia wasn’t saying she didn’t like
the poems, but lovely? A word my mother detested as phoney,
like someone holding a pinky straight out while drinking tea,
the sort of word my grandmother used when vaguely praising
a Bartok piece, or a play she didn’t understand. Like people
saying, “How interesting,” when what they really mean is, “Spare me
the details,” or, “Could we change the subject.” So when
I asked Olivia what she meant by “lovely” and she talked about
the lush, long vowel sounds, I wondered why I’d felt stabbed,
until I remembered my father’s lying in the ICU, the fat respirator
tube jammed down his throat, the whoosh of forced breath
fogging the glassed-in-room, and my stroking his forehead while
my father, whom I’d never seen cry, began to leak tears down
his chiseled face. Finally, not knowing what more to do, I stood
by the window staring out at the New Hampshire pines
and began reciting one of his favorite poems: “I must go down
to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.” He started
to jerk, whole body spasms under the sheets, more tears carving
runnels down his cheeks, and I knew he wanted me to recite
“Stopping By Woods,” his most-loved poem and maybe mine too,
but I couldn’t. I couldn’t turn from that window looking
out at the trees beyond the parking lot, the words to the one
poem I’ve known by heart for decades buried somewhere
below my throat. He died the next day. Maybe that was why
I asked the class if we could recite it, if perhaps some of them
had it memorized, and Denise and Lupe and Nathaniel actually
said they had. So we chanted it, the other eight of us
reading from the Norton’s crisp, white pages, but when we came
to the ending, not a single student needed to look down
as we sang the last stanza all together. I can’t explain it, but for once
something dark and deep entered among us in the shivery
air-conditioned room. As if we were all one self and yet still alone
in the cold, and wanting to stay. When we talked again,
we talked until I had to stand up, open the door, and tell them
to leave, say it was past time for their dinners and
all the lovely, nagging promises waiting for them to keep.

Aaron: say something about how you notice Frost’s lines have crept into her poem.

Yeah, Frost kind of comes into her poem, himself, the feeling of “Stopping By Woods” has entered her classroom, and it feels like it’s all one—as she says—Frosts’s words, her student’s words, and then her words. And look how wonderfully she defends Frost! If something dark and deep can come in, there is a lot there, certainly not just a “lovely” poet, as her graduate student says. Much richer than that.

So here’s another one along the same lines. A lot of us can relate to this one. It’s called ” I Hate Telling People I Teach English.” And then she elaborates further, about telling people she writes poetry, which is even worse.

I Hate Telling People I Teach English

Like last August, after they’d finished my bone scan,
this combed-over mid-sixties guy starts chatting about the novel
he’s written in his head, he only needs someone like me
to work it up, he never liked punctuation, parts of speech, all that junk
from junior high, and I couldn’t get my print-out fast enough
to take to my GP, who likes to quote from his inspirational speeches
to local luncheon clubs. He’s determined to collect them
in a book, though he’d need a good editor, do I know any, and meanwhile
I’ve been waiting fifty-seven minutes for help with recharging
my sluggish thyroid, and I haven’t met any doctors who like giving
free advice about your daughter’s milk allergy or your friend’s
migraines or the thumb you slammed in the stairwell door, splitting it
open so badly your students interrupted your lecture on
pronoun agreement to note you were dripping blood from your hand
and wow, what happened? But it’s mostly at parties I hate
admitting I teach English. I’ve never been quick enough to fudge,
the way a Methodist minister friend says he’s in “support
services” so he doesn’t get called to lead grace. I guess I could dub myself
a “communications facilitator,” but since I’m in the business
of trying to obviate obfuscation, I own up, though I dread what I know
is coming: Oh, they say, I hated English, all that grammar,
you won’t like the way I talk, you’ll be correcting me, and suddenly
they need another Bud or merlot or they’ve got to check out
the meatballs or guacamole over on the table and I’m left facing
blank space, no one who can even think about correcting
my dangling participles. Once when the computer guy was at the house,
bent over my laptop trying to get us back online,
he asked what it was I wrote, and when I told him “poetry,” said, “Ah—
fluffy stuff,” and I wasn’t sure whether he was kidding
or not, but I figured at least it was better than his saying he hated poetry
or that he had a manuscript right outside in his Camry and
could I take a look, no hurry, but he knew it would sell, could I tell him
how to get an agent for his novel about his uncle
moving to Arizona and running a thriving ostrich farm until the day
hot-air balloons took off a half mile away
and stampeded the birds, till all he was left with were feathers and bloody
tangled necks on fence posts, the dream of making two million
from those birds a haunting sentence fragment—but then, I think:
I would never have wanted to miss the time a dentist,
tapping my molars, asked if I’d like to hear him recite Chaucer’s Prologue
to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, which he did
while I lay back in his chair, open-mouthed, pierced to the root.

“Pierced to the root”—directly from the Canterbury Tales. I wonder if he recited it in Old English.

These poems are the kind that some people who don’t read much poetry might not recognize as poetry. They have long lines, they don’t have any of the earmarks: no rhyme or regular meter. And, lacking that, no deep, convoluted metaphor, no great density of language or elevated language. If you could see the poem on the page, you’d see that every other line is indented, and you’d see she is paying close attention to where she ends lines—the line breaks.

But also if you listen carefully you know it’s a poem. You get this rhythmical speech, the lists, item after item that build up. This was Walt Whitman’s technique, the line that keeps on going and building, depending upon the building up and the parallel construction, the same kind of phrase repeated, sometimes the same word repeated. Incantatory. Like an incantation—magical language.

You’re in the swing of the language, carried along on it, looking forward to where it might go next. Now listen to this portion of Walt Whitman’s poem, “I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing,” from his lifetime’s work, called “Leaves of Grass.” Listen for the swing of the language, every line pretty much the length of a breath, but swinging from the commas the way Wendy’s poem does:

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it, and the moss hung down from the branches;
Without any companion it grew there, uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself;
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves, standing alone there, without its
friend, its lover near—for I knew I could not;
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little
moss,
And brought it away—and I have placed it in sight in my room;
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends, (
For I believe lately I think of little else than of them;)

and so on.
So you can get music from all sorts of ways in a poem. And one of them is that building up of phrases. I admire both the way Wendy Barker makes her language do that, and the way she surprises us with where those phrases take us.

She has a new book of prose poems, called Nothing Between Us, published by Del Sol Press in 2009, that’s based on her experiences teaching 9th graders in West Berkeley during the late 60s. If you want to get the feel of a poem that looks like prose on the page, but accomplishes some of the fine moves of music, you might want to get this book.