The Animal Gospels, reviewed by Matthew Ladd for West Branch

Five Atonements
The Animal Gospels
Review by Matthew Ladd for West Branch #60 (Spring/Summer, 2007)

As its title implies, Brian Barker’s The Animal Gospels is intermittently concerned with giving voices to animals—most of them four-footed, though “Mockingbird Gospel” and “Crow Gospel Coming Down from the Mountain” extend the privilege to birds as well. Barker is not merely a ventriloquist, though. Nor should his canon of creatures lead us to believe he’s trying to reinvent paradise; the book opens, after all, with the long, fragmented poem “Flood”. The farther one reads into The Animal Gospels (and it doesn’t take long—the author has culled his debut collection to only seventeen poems in fewer than eighty pages), the more one finds that his anthropomorphism is little more than a “Rosebud”–style gimcrack, behind which he can explore the rural decay of the American South and its twin legacies of hospitality and racism.

The poet’s interest in the lives of small towns is thoroughly reminiscent of Richard Hugo, but the early work of Philip Levine is also here, especially in the oracular voice of “Guinea Pig Gospel”: “Out of mildewed files, out of charts / burnt by the blind god of Indifference and Mistakes, / out of a tainted petri dish and a drawer / strewn with syringes, I rise tonight. . . .” The speaker, as it turns out, is entirely human, a black man living in the rural South, and only a guinea pig in the sense that he was subject to unregulated medical testing by the U.S. government. His gospel is news, all right, though it’s anything but good.

The social significance of Barker’s animals seems to grow with each page. “Crow Gospel Coming Down from the Mountain,” arguably the most ambitious poem in the collection, pieces together childhood memories of the neighborhood Ku Klux Klan and the more subtle racism of the poet’s own relatives. In it, the crows are the only witnesses to the murder of a local black man. The muskrats of “Muskrat Gospel,” conversely, are trapped at a creek and eaten by a young man left destitute by the closing of local coal mines and lumber mills. Both human and animal are victims, but in the end it is the young man–later revealed to be the poet’s grandfather—whose suffering matters most.

But the compelling thing isn’t that Barker uses his mammals and birds as vehicles of human failure. Rather, it’s that he so often manages to do this without getting sucked into the yawning thematic vortex of the metaphor itself. “Muskrat Gospel” ends, for instance, on a strange but gentle note:

          let me believe it when I see you
fall again, laddering over black branches

into the creek, ocean bound, blood bound,
sliding past where everything
bright-eyed and furred dreams in the dark, and grief
lifts weightlessly from the backs
of the dying, wafting up like a familiar perfume.

The distinction between human and non-human—furred muskrat, dying grandfather—has dissolved, but it almost seems like the words and sounds themselves are making the dissolution possible. When Barker can make this relationship work, he’s a true delight to read. Interestingly, the lines in which he clearly wants to delight you are those that most often fail to do so. Displays of emotional vulnerability (“I could lie here with you forever”) or nostalgia (“Once, when I was sixteen and death didn’t exist, / When it didn’t follow me as it does now”) tend to crack under the pressure of their own expectations.

This is, in the end, a hopeful book. And Barker, perhaps sensing the weakness of the above lines, is usually subtle enough to disguise that hope behind a veil of disappointment and anger at the way his country treats its rural poor. The jacket flap gushes that the Gospels contain “not a single note of irony,” but that’s not exactly true. It should strike us as profoundly ironic, if it does not already, that the South has historically been either an Eden or a Hell on Earth, depending on what color you were. Hence the ambivalent tribute, in “The Trees of the South,” to “the sweet gum in Selma / battered by shotgun blasts,” and “the cottonwood somewhere outside Charleston / with a foot of rotted rope still dangling / from a branch.” Barker is rightly unwilling to shy away from the South’s demons, but he faces them as a witness and not a Judge. Hence his determination, near the end of the book, to “conjure happiness out of spindrift and salt air, / Out of wind, out of blown sand, out of the frail cries of / the sparrows. . . .” It is, perhaps, because of their frailty that non-human animals seem such unblemished sources of comfort.

A purely innocent voice would not recognize our capacity for evil. A purely cynical one would talk of nothing else, and a fearful one would simply be silent. The Animal Gospels falls somewhere between. There is judgment here, but (as in Graham’s Overlord) it is almost always turned inward. To judge one’s past fairly, then, is to first acknowledge that one has already found some sort of redemption as an individual. It is to Barker’s credit that he seeks it in the language of the poem itself.