Crab Orchard Review: Brian Barker’s The Animal Gospels

Crab Orchard Review Spring 2008

Barker, Brian, The Animal Gospels.  Dorset, Vermont: Tupelo Press, 2006.  76 pages.  $16.95
Reviewed by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Brian Barker’s first book of poems, The Animal Gospels, is a collection that fearlessly seeks to uncover that which made and makes the self. In poem after poem, Barker reaches for insight with the highest lyrical and narrative ambitions, moving within and between time and imagination, at all times examining the strange entanglement of elements that make us who we are. Like the “fizz and flash / of your spent filament” that briefly illuminates the “foggy-eyes stranger” in the mirror of “Self-Portrait With Burnt Out Light Bulb”—like that “smoky globe” which, when shaken, emits a “scarce, peculiar song  of broken light”—it is the musical world that draws Barker to the poetic medium.

The book’s first section, composed of the poem “Flood” asks:

Where have all the night tunes fled?”

The thrum of locusts, those tin blossoms I loved
To hear ratchet and uncoil
And swivel down from the cypress trees,
Are long gone, gone with the freight trains
Slogging through humidity,
Their shadowchurn over
The tarred trestles, their castanets of wood and air and steel

“Flood” is a poem that depicts the aftermath of 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison in Houston, Texas, with the musicality (or sudden lack thereof) of the convergence of the animal and human as its driving principle. In this opening section, Barker reveals his acute awareness of the frail connection between these realms and asks not only “Who will remember us?” but also changes himself with that duty: “What will I remember?”

The poems of the second section show Barker’s wide imaginative range.  Like the clabberless bell of ‘Elegy With A Mute Bell,” which has lost its “perfect // high-toned pitch,” leaving only “its absence… marked // on the sill,” “Gospel with Lion And Gazelle” and “Snow Over Shaver’s Fork” discover a liminal “space / before speech where the wind // swallows our cries” and where narration is “Duped again by the silence,” “speechless / syllables claiming a void.”

Barker’s imagination reveals a horrific awe for the human.  In “Dog Gospel,” he writes, “When I dare at last to imagine hunger,” and we are led into a storyscape of a boy beating an abandoned dog in order to feed his hankering “for something he cannot name.”  In “Guinea Pig Gospel,” Barker takes on the voice of ‘Exhibit X,” one of a hundred and twenty-eight African America men who died as a result of a study of syphilis disguised as “free medical care.” The poem commemorates the lives of these men who were once “young and poor” and who “slept naked in a field listening to bullfrogs,” lamenting the men’s fate to be “burnt by the blind god of Indifference and Mistakes.”

The third section, the thirteen-page “Crow Gospel Coming Down from the Mountain,” stealthily navigates the rocky terrain of childhood, imagination, memory, and actual experience.  This long poem further explores human iniquity in depicting the racism of Barker’s hometown of Bristol, Tennessee.  The poem opens with an invasion of crows and a god who “has turned his back on our town,” then quickly moves into a retelling of the day his third grade class mistook a KKK rally for a parade. Later, when the speaker’s grandmother )”a neat woman,/ A kind woman, a staunch Christian”) tells him, “The coloreds ruin everything/the touch.”  After she asks, “Do you think if you died tonight you’d go to heaven?,” he imagines God as an almost-tangible presence:

Later when I lay in bed fearing an end
I couldn’t even imagine, I gave God a body
And a name, and tried to pray:

       I’m an honest boy, Hoss.
My heart is clay, Hoss.
O please Hoss, hollow me out before they do.

Notice the ambiguity of “they” in these lines.  Is “they” the crows who “strutted into town / to roost in the trees?”  Is “they” “Brother Defeat [who] leans against the lamp post, tapping his foot / … tossing cashews to the crows // As Sisyphus… feels the mountain / Crumbling on his back?” or “..Little Jimmy Jenkins and his ilk, white-robed, / A few of the men playing instruments, / Zig-[zagging] towards City Hall”?  Or is “they,” in fact the “… black men… // Dirty and exhausted from working / Construction the whole day, dynamiting / … a hole that would become, by summer, / The Lee Tunnel off Highway 81”?  Barker provides no answer.  He is more interested in the fallacy of his supposedly Christian upbringing, and in the damaging impact that racism has on communities and, particularly, on children.

The poems of the fourth section bore deeper into Barker’s upbringing.  In “Muskrat Gospel,” the body of the speaker’s grandfather “begins to return to light.” And the speaker claims that “… if I want to understand, / I must follow him back before dawn,” “I must place my hands / on his when he holds his breath / an cracks their velvet necks.” In “Still Live with “Charlie & Shorty,” we are asked to “let the boy lead you by the hand / close enough to see that this / is not some trick of the light or mirrors.” Later in “Gospel with Swine & Fire,” the reader is told to return to the beginning, “…your father / undressing in the dark,…” “… your mother robed in a cotton gown, / flushed in heat, her chapped hands smoothing/ the blanket she’s drawn up under her chin.”

The book’s final section, composed of the eleven-page poem “Monkey Gospel Floating Out to Sea,” exhorts us that “Out whole lives are quest and quest,… // A familiar face glimpsed on a busy street, then gone./ A name that can’t find its groove on the tongue.” Like the books of the Old Testament, which attempt, on one level, to translate the word of God and, on another, to tell a morally instructive tale, The Animal Gospels reveals an equally bifurcated landscape of truth and mythology.  These poems make no attempt to reach ultimate truth; rather they compel us to enter what Charles Wright calls “The country of Narrative”; to embark on a journey that places the flawed nature of the human self in the expeditionary context of narration.

Brian Barker reminds us, like the mockingbird of “Mockingbird Gospel” “Who sings the song it sang / beneath feather and flesh, its tongs / humming, a tuning fork struck /./ with breath and blood,” that the story is often “told best by hands.”  And while the “quest” may not bring us to a definition of self, The Animal Gospels certainly brings us closer.