Reviews

Avenida Uriburu

Perhaps not coincidentally I was reading Avenida Uriburu on a train. It was raining steadily. Outside, shapes and colors ran together. I forgot where I was then remembered a jacket I wore as a child. Seeing the jacket that wasn’t there but curiously was, I regained my bearings: reading a book of poems situated in Buenos Aires on a train heading into Oakland, California. “Without images we tend to lose our way,” wrote James Hillman. Avenida Uriburu is a book concerned with images and bearings, with the extent to which one can and cannot orient oneself in territory at once familiar and strange. In lieu of compass and map, poet Michael Hanner both engages the art of noticing and constructs imaginative spaces, inviting gesture, object and persona to inhabit them.

 

Notitia is the capacity to form true notions of things from the act of attentive noticing. The word notice is related to the words connoisseur, incognito, recognize and gnosis. Each of these words finds resonance in this collection. In many of the poems the speaker is a connoisseur of the sensual, of red wine, chorizo, the scent of jacarandas, color and touch: “Opposites are sewn into your life,/buttons on a dress someone else/must button and unbutton for you./Hold still, they say; and you feel their fingers/moving behind you like butterflies.” Sensual experience is a kind of guide, leading the speaker to glimpse, at times even to inhabit, albeit briefly, the soul of the place.

 

Governing these poems is an intelligence which resists drawing conclusions. The poems are far more interested in alchemy, in the buzz and hum produced by the proximity of things. In the poem “La Biela,” for example, the speaker is sitting on or near the terrace of a hotel’s cafe, noting what he sees: “The ancient gum shades/the well-heeled diners and riffraff/sucking eggs and medialunas…” But more than that, he is pairing things, letting them rub against each other, creating a static effect. The poem goes on:

 

Before the entry is a fiberglass statue

of one of the race car drivers

who patronized the cafe

a half century ago

before people began disappearing

into the windy delta.

The whiff of dyed red hair, the chameleons,

the English spaniels sleeping under our feet.

 

In just a few lines we receive a sense of the strangeness of the ordinary in Buenos Aires. The kitschy fiberglass statue of a pop-culture icon whom we imagine racing over open spaces makes way for the ghosts of those who disappeared into the windy delta in the last century’s political upheavals.

 

The speaker of another poem, “Avenida Ayacucho,” observes a man presumably a member of the Argentine elite: “The tan is flawless./The face has seen everything./The eyes so like a serpent,/impersonal as Switzerland, perhaps they are only cameras.” Implicit is a sense that by cunning, luck or complicity this man survived the terrible years of 1976-83. In Invisible Cities Italo Calvino notes, “The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows…the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” In these poem we find enactments of Calvino’s observation. The past, including the dead and disappeared, not only hovers over but is woven into Hanner’s Buenos Aires.

 

As well, the poems often evoke a sense of precariousness and contingency: “Here in the south of the world/the power fails/in a city where I speak not the language./We could use the strange key the landlord gave us…/The door knob doesn’t move./The elevators are dead./The mountains hem us in.” Syntax inverts. The same chord plays over and over. Stasis and repetition become species of instability. This is not the first world, and the keys the speaker’s been given are not the right ones. Still, the poet recognizes a kind of kinship with the place through possible fictions, possible lives.

 

The prose poem "The Window" postulates a life in a nondescript slab of a building, the poem accompanied by an intriguing photograph of one such building, taken from the ground and angling up, rendering a sense of vertigo. The speaker of this poem lives incognito, resident or traveler, and watches with intense interest the only neighbor he ever sees, entranced by her watering the flowers: “In that entire space the only real color is the red of her impatiens.” Yet in the end this speaker cannot bear the pressure of being recognized, or rejected, and stays away from the window “like the other people who don’t live here.” The city invites and enthralls, and the city withholds. It is itself a kind of tango dance, choreographed by suggestion and nuance, as much by what is not there as by what is.

 

Again, Calvino provides perspective: “The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.” Hanner deftly manages this tension. A wise traveler, he realizes his knowledge is limited: “Then Yesterday, vain and harsh, humped home,/dark falling, its work of not knowing/complete without knowing.” Gnosis is achieved but it is not an apotheosis of understanding, not revelation. It has to do with being open to sur/reality, experience whose fabric blends memory, history, dream, and the physical world.

 

The book’s final poem is an afterword, mapping the vicinity of Avenida President Jose Evaristo Uriburu. Whereas the rest of the poems seek to orient us psychically and emotionally, this last poem locates us spatially: “Two blocks one way is a shopping mall abutting Recoleta cemetery. Two blocks the other way is Avenida Santa Fe….” Rather than summing up the place, this poem allows us to linger with its familiarity, its laundromats, kindergartens, street vendors and grocery stores. We have been somewhere that seemed often strange, a place that offered pleasures and kept back potent secrets and pain that nonetheless bled from the bandaged wounds, a place “drunk with its own ooze and babel.” Perhaps we can never fully orient ourselves. The best we can do involves noticing and creating brief habitations. Our understanding is necessarily limited. These poems suggest that Buenos Aires is both unique and Everyplace, that what beckons and disturbs the traveler on the road, beckons and disturbs the traveler at home and is the condition of being alive at this, or any, historical moment.

Sara Burant

Reviewed by

by

Michael Hanner

October 1, 2019

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Review of Long Love: New & Selected Poems 1985-2017 by Judith Barrington
Salmon Poetry, 2018
 
By Erica Goss

This review first appeared in Sticks & Stones, 7/1/19


In Long Love: New & Selected Poems 1985-2017, Judith Barrington looks back at major events in her life, including the loss of her parents when she was nineteen, her sexuality, aging, and the natural world. Spanning thirty-two years of the poet’s life, this collection demonstrates Barrington’s sensitivity and skill in writing about such deeply personal subjects.

The book opens with “The Force,” a poem about the desire for life, in spite of, or even because of, insurmountable odds: “Some force, / deep in belly or brain, blood or history, keeps pushing // for just one more knife-edged descent of the stairs—.” That force invigorates the book, charging the poems with an electric energy and a hard-won yet unshakeable faith in the promise of each new day.

As we learn in “Motherlessness,” the poet’s parents died when she was not quite an adult: 

Yes, I am the one who carelessly lost her mother


before I turned twenty and everyone knows it. 

In “Behind Bars,” she ponders who her father, “the kind of man you stood beside,” really was:

Could there be love in there, jammed into my heart—
or even into his heart

drowned out by impenetrable        

silence?

The word “drowned” is important; in “Villanelles for a Drowned Parent,” we learn that the poet’s mother foretold her own death by drowning, a fact that causes the daughter a peculiar anxiety: 

Should I, for instance, hold on steadfastly
to my belief that I can foretell my fate?

And later, the tragedy and its botched rescue appear in these terse lines:

(Your ship caught fire. The lifeboats were manned
by panicky sailors who left you behind in the night.)

In the final villanelle, the poet accepts that she is shut out from any true knowledge of the event that took her parents’ lives; the ocean keeps its secrets: “…an unmistakable sign / I should stay on shore and wonder where you are.”

In “Lesbian,” the speaker, a schoolgirl, learns that the attraction she feels for another girl has a name – “the word,” a word that no one says aloud, a word “stranger than death,” one that causes a visceral reaction (“My stomach tipped; stopped breathing”). The lover in “Lesbian” (‘”I was so young” I said / “You took advantage of me”’) reappears in “Body Language,” a poem that describes the uneven nature of their relationship: “My complicity confuses the issue. / How to say the word: abuse / when my body tells another story.” 

She invents a character, “the Dyke with No Name,” who examines the world around her through her outsider lens, “a human figure growing from shadows…not belonging” (“The Dyke with No Name Thinks about Landscape”). In this long poem, Barrington studies nature and her place in it, starting with mainstream culture's limits: 

The trouble is not nature, she thinks,
but the people who tell you there’s always one of each—

starting with Noah 
and his couple-filled floating zoo.

This landscape is fraught with peril, a lethal place for “two women, stalked for days by the man // who killed one and left the other for dead.” 

Finally, at the edge of the sea, the speaker observes

The trouble is not nature, she thinks
but the people who say I’m not part of it.

They’re trying to paint me out of the landscape
says the dyke with no name.

The powerful life force introduced in the beginning of the book returns near the end. After undergoing brain surgery, Barrington asks “Is my head full of light now?” and notices, from a window, “darkness / forever touched by the kindness of light” (“The Wound”). In “Long Love,” a recollection of her partner’s legs turns into a meditation on mortality, on how a “suspicious mole” becomes a “hazard that could split your globe / down the middle.” Aging together in a long, loving relationship comes with its own perils: “Love-struck gives way / to love-soaked, a softer state” where certain things become so commonplace they risk being ignored.

A relentless optimism shines through this book, even as the poet confronts loss, discrimination, and the indignities of aging. A highly gifted writer, Judith Barrington’s new collection aptly represents her poetic strengths.

Judith Barrington has published four poetry collections and two chapbooks. She has received many awards for her writing, including The Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize and an American Civil Liberties Union Freedom of Expression Award. Her Lifesaving: a Memoir was the winner of the Lambda Book Award and runner up for the PEN / Martha Albrand Award for the Memoir. Born in Brighton, England, she has lived in Portland, Oregon for forty years. More at www.judithbarrington.com.

Long Love: New & Selected Poems 1985-2017 is available from Salmon Poetry

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