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
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