August Press, 2005 -  £3.00


Not that I question the wisdom of William Carlos Williams’s famous dictum, “No ideas but in things”—but it’s possible to cluster so many things together that a reader can’t see what you’re talking about. Susan Barnard has an unquestionable gift for physical description. In the winter poem ‘Black Squirrel’s Tail’ 

…we see, sunlit in snow,

squirrels pose and play.

Their tiny tail bones

graded like pearls

in half a necklace

radiate hairs stark

as cracks in crystal. 

There’s energy in those words. But suddenly it’s evening, and we’re hell-bent for “the dim lit/ crumbling edge of the coast,” where a boy, “poorly dressed and pale as moonlight/ trails his legs over the ledge/ above a frozen river.” We’ve moved from those bony little tails to what feels like the frozen end of the world via a dozen images in three short stanzas—too large a vision in too small a space. Mind you, Barnard’s vision is large. She can’t see a smooth stone without experiencing its entire geologic history (which she does effectively in ‘Facing Mother Earth’). But too often she gets carried away by her own vatic voice, as in ‘Falling’, which seems to be about one of the Space Shuttle disasters but ends with humanity spawning “in the spaces between/ distant stars.”  

The best poems of the 15 in this self-published pamphlet are those that stick to one time, place and story—like ‘One Perfect Sheet’, which describes workers removing a body from a fire or crime scene (it’s unclear which): 

We shelter our bodies

inside zip up suits,

writhe into rubber gloves

and cover our hair.

We respect every love

of those who lay there. 

Or ‘Easy Meat’, a poem that makes bivalves memorable (and almost human): 

Inside plastic bags

tied with a twist

they are found frozen:

breathing tubes entwined

in a glazed group kiss.

Here the ideas really are in things. It’s when she gets cosmic that she loses us. 

Marcia Menter