At first glance, the use of the word “prophet” in the first poem of So-Called Mettle by Wendy Barnes didn’t exactly do wonders for me. The term “ragged history” made up for this faux pas. I was struck with these conflicting impressions the poem offers. Yes, there are truly powerful lines and fragments throughout the poem, but these began to grate with frequency, forcing the poem to read awkwardly. The density of these lines weighs on their effect. In a sense I was overly awed and, to be frank, quite irritated by the quality and quantity of such lines. I suppose it’s true that there can be too much of a good thing. Barnes does this perfectly in many of her poems. Strength and meaning in poetry shouldn’t come from this “clumping” of weighted words (as unglamourous as “clumping” sounds). The first poem in this collection “clumps” beautiful phrases and concepts together. If each thought could stand alone in a poem of its own, the collection would be brilliant. I wonder if these powerful lines are trying too hard, if adding “squawk and shards of glass” strengthens or weakens a “ragged history”. I would be inclined to say that a ragged history should stand alone. But as beautiful as many of the lines are (and would be made more beautiful if set apart from all the other heavy concepts) Barnes then proceeds to write something as cliché as “I am the prophet of your landscape”: a literary embolism. It is a difficult thing to write about demons and lunar shifts and sound remarkable. Barnes doesn’t quite succeed.
With subsequent poems I had a similar struggle. I wanted to enjoy them, I wanted to understand them, but I became lost in the lists of metaphors and contradictions. For Barnes, language is a game. A malleable media, and granted, I wanted to play her game as well.
The name can mean both razor-spiked
and sponge cake-lined seduction,
spit and gravitas, push
but a name can be
coincident or not or both.
I still don’t know what these lines say. Can one be too clever in writing poetry? An inside joke can only be gotten if there are people on the inside to get it. Too many of Barnes’s lines read in this manner, being cleverly beautiful but seemingly meaningless. Several of these poems seem forced and rather clichéd. “Men to Ruin, Men to Death” begins with an intriguing confusion between cleverness and confusion and ends with a dancer in a black veil. Too much can be said about a descending black veil.
But in this tradition of contradiction, Barnes continues to turn corners and surprise her readers with “Hypocrisy, Mon Amour“, a poem combining French and English in a beautiful dichotomy of worlds. Perhaps this is what she is aiming for throughout the collection: a chance to test the boundaries of this world and another, of the familiar and the uncanny. Cunning lines impress upon this collection. We cannot ignore our poet’s realisation of being “heart-dead, but gun shy” and the beautiful simplicity of the poem’s final line: “‘Aware’: an English word that lacks a French translation.”
I do worry most about strange lines juxtaposed to ordinary lines. “Flanked by bare-chested natives, / his foot atop a tiger / freshly slain” doesn’t really belong next to “supermarkets” and “schoolyards”, nor do I understand where the “Pantheon” comes into all of this in the poem “The Flâneuse, or Woman Pendue“.
In a distantly pleasing way, I did enjoy the idea of a boy coughing “a cloud of bees” in the poem “Tenderness Is In the Hands”. However, a poet should never use the word crimson or discuss the trite and gory details of how they expect they might die (unless they’re asking for the reader’s assistance). The collection is worth a read for the odd gem, tucked untidily between ordinary lines. Images conjured by “the prickling sun” are unexpected and brilliant, making So-Called Mettle surprising and intriguing with a lot of extra, ordinary concepts mixed in.
Meredith Collins is an editor and writer from the south of England. She studied poetry in the US and the UK and is currently studying for her MA in Creative and Critical Writing. Her most recent publications are anthologies Ice and Skate (published by Pighog Press, 2012). Meredith’s work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies on both sides of the pond.