Knowing you can no longer build
with it or kill, a needle-point-covered brick
At eighty-nine pages, plus extensive notes, Sarah Barber's Country House—winner of the Pleiades Press Editors Prize for Poetry—offers a plethora of material for a reader to draw out shared experience, contemplate history, raise questions, engage thoughtful research, and marvel at linguistic nuances. My own way into the text is undoubtedly as personal as it is unique, and I believe another reader would see something slightly, or maybe completely, different than I do in the poetry.
Reading Country House, for me, felt like chipping away at the remnants of domesticity—a turning up of the floorboards and pulling away of old wallpaper to discover what lies beneath. These poems are both soft and violent, sensual and scaring, as they strike out at false securities and idealistic fantasies about simplicity and stability, our fabricated worlds and tendency to prefer to exist in a ‘bubble.’ In the book’s opening poem, “The History of Landscape,” the speaker asserts: “You’re not here to feel something / about nature” as though the poet is warding off her reader’s potential disappointment due to expectations that this abode will be warm and inviting, rural and sweet.
On the contrary, Barber’s country is ironic, like a girl that is “white and soft and sweet [ . . . ] a cure that is also a weed” (“Milkweed”), or “plastic and clean” like fabricated “love and goat[s], milk [ . . . ] button and corn” freshly minted from a 3D printer (“3D Printer Pastoral”). It is a country where children are so prioritized that “onions” being “cheap” are allowed to rot while everyone is encouraged to “eat cake” (“Storybook House”) or “bowl after bowl of ice cream” in the midst of “streams of decals— / eagles; an ISIS-hunter license, fake” and “too many Confederate flags” (“Rodeo”). Here is where farming has become so fashionable that it has been adopted by urban populations and its skills taught to “Portland’s modern farmgirls who signed up for ladies’ slaughter day,” arriving in “aprons [ . . . ] cherried, checked, or else rosetted” to learn to “slit” a chicken’s “throat” (“When Pin-Ups Slaughter Chickens”).
Here “the eye is carnal / and literal” (“Housekeeping”) and in “Knick Knack”:
there’s the issue
of force, the questions of whether
the aliveness of pain or some thing
is a ground on which we might wish
to exclude it from the category
of the beautiful.
Here, in this country house, worth is decided, normality determined, standards set, behaviors categorized, and all the wares are arranged “as if the neighbors care / about landscape” (“Building the Waterfall”).
The book levels deservedly censuring remarks against the banal, hypocritical bubble of a domestic—probably Midwestern—way of life that pampers its prejudices and prides itself on being homespun. Where anything deemed alien or other threatens the antiquated ideals that regulate social arrangements and determine community values.
As I read, I am forced to contemplate my own Midwestern tendencies. I am inspired to question my impulses and recall how easy it is to accept the status quo, get too comfortable, avoid growing pangs and change. Poems like “On Being Blue” dredge up these thoughts:
On a racial map every dot is a body
coded for color: blue is White, green is Black
and so South St. Louis is beautiful as a flat
Midwestern landscape is, sky and fields
of corn or soy.
How easy it is to succumb to the norm, let the pressures of home, family, and rural communities decide our belief systems and fates. In Barber’s work there are references to saints and superstitions—icons and values that influence behavior and relationships. All good things to contemplate, especially in poetry where the language has the power to disarm us.
And disarmed I am—even charmed by the sheer tenacity, efficiency, and originality of the language and lines in these poems. “Sometimes I decide to be good, / at it” begins “Housekeeping”:
To croon through the house
with a broom murmuring
sweet, sweet as if the dust
were timorous and loved me as it did
once when it was skin and hair
Moments like these catch my breath. How true they are to domestic life, its mundane tasks.
Though Barber warns at the onset that a reader is not here to “feel something about nature,” I still do. I feel human nature, but also rabbits and lettuce, the hay moon and sun setting “in a pocket of sky” (“Landscape with Two Horizons”), “winter gardens / growing up pink and white” (“Lenten Rose”) and, my favorite meditation of all in these poems from “This Potato”: “Of interesting things in the kitchen, / let me remember these are not the least, // this water and this potato.” Nature everywhere: in the garden, in the field, on the table, by the road, at the church, in the kitchen.
Having lived a Midwestern domestic life, I find some magic here in Country House that both compliments and contextualizes the more serious issues it raises about our current sociopolitical situation.
Review by Kimberly Ann Priest