Company in the Void: On Catherine Barnett’s “Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space”

James Ciano reviews Catherine Barnett’s “Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space.”

Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space by Catherine Barnett. Graywolf Press. 96 pages.

IN THE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS to Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space (2024), Catherine Barnett writes, “It’s wonderful to be able to thank my students—past, present, future—whom I hope to fail only in the ways a teacher’s limitations are useful, maybe even necessary, to a poet’s true education.” It is here I’d like to confess that I am one of those students lucky enough to have called Catherine Barnett my teacher. For to be a student of Barnett’s does not mean that you are necessarily just a “past,” “present,” or “future” student, but that you are a student of hers for life. “This is what I’d like to get done in the next twenty-four hours: write twelve recommendations,” she writes at one point, and later, “When I teach, I seem to let all twelve hearts beat inside my own.” While I understand the sentiment, I can’t admit to Barnett ever having “failed” me, though Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space is in essence a book about how we inevitably fail—our loved ones, our families, our students, our self. Through poems of startling clarity and delicate humor, Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space grapples with the ontological absurdity of our large-scale and everyday failures, finding space to elegize and celebrate both what we can and cannot control.

In this fourth collection, Barnett continues a formal and structural motif that readers will recognize from her previous collection, The Human Hours (2018). Throughout that book, Barnett scatters a series of brief, one-to-two-page lyric essays titled “Accursed Questions,” which act as a kind of spine. Here, she employs a similar device, though this time the assemblages of fragments are each titled “Studies in Loneliness.” Barnett’s poetics is rooted in a strong sense of the “lyric I,” but like the mantis shrimp in her poem “Thought Experiment,” whose “brain [is] housed / in each eyestalk,” Barnett’s engagement with the world beyond the self is wide (one need only flip to the Notes section), marked by an insatiable curiosity and a cunning ability to metabolize learned information into her singular register of eros-tinged self-effacement. The lyric essay serves Barnett well in that it allows for a space of associative movement, while offering a sense of pressure created through silence and juxtaposition. In its entirety, “Studies in Loneliness, ii” reads:

I can’t be lonely because there’s not time—look at my calendar all booked
up with the assuaging of loneliness.

Grace told me she sleeps with a mason jar!

I sleep in socks when I can’t get warm. More and more I like to fall asleep
and wake in a cold room, letting my solitary engine make its own heat.

The doctors snip the cord. I don’t know if that’s when it starts.

From the quiet irony of the calendar to the subversive employment of the exclamation mark, Barnett is a poet for whom no detail is out of place or without purpose. The final line of “Studies in Loneliness, ii” falls about halfway down the page. In its brevity and juxtaposition with the blank space beneath it, we feel an imagistic mirroring between the poem’s last line, in which the “doctors snip the cord,” and our own reading experience, in which Barnett “snips” the end of the essay. Just as the baby is thrust into loneliness, Barnett ushers us, too, into the loneliness of the blank page beneath.

Over the course of the book’s three sections, Barnett moves from elegies for a father and meditations on a mother’s dementia to poems engaged specifically with teaching and works of art, and ultimately to a more self-reflective sense of interrogation in the book’s final section. With a descriptive accuracy akin to Elizabeth Bishop, and a playful wryness reminiscent of Wisława Szymborska, Barnett’s deft organization and imagistic motifs unify the experience of the book. The image of sneakers—a mother’s borrowed pair—in the book’s first section echoes in the second section, this time as “Geox,” which the speaker “wore […] everywhere,” in the poem “Awe.” And again, they pop up in the book’s final section, when Barnett writes, “Every day I put on my pale blue sneakers and tie the laces and then I find myself outside.”

Similarly, in the book’s first poem we hear the sound of a “father’s prized ice machine dropping its tidy cubes automatically,” echoed as it returns anew in the book’s final poem, where the speaker tending to a dying friend “could hear the cubes falling with abandon from the freezer into its small collection bin.” These kinds of recurrences exemplify the cohesive arrangement of the collection.

Barnett begins the second section of the book with a poem titled “Fugit inreparabile tempus.” Given its central location, the poem is poised to “look backward / and forward at the same time,” as the speaker’s mother, a painter, puts it at one point in an earlier poem. As Barnett reminds us, the Latin phrase is one we “have probably seen on sundials / and gravestones and mispronounced, helpless.” Derived from book three, line 284 of Virgil’s Georgics, it translates to “It escapes, irretrievable time.”

This phrase, which laments time’s passing, casts us backward to revisit a poem like “Itinerary” from section one. In it, the memory of a father’s Accutron watch, which the speaker “could see the insides of,” and which was “99.9977% accurate,” becomes an aperture through which the speaker can see to the “insides of” her relationship with a dying father, as he sits at a kitchen table in the present day and listens to “his new Timex / make no sound as the hours sweep by.”

Two poems later, in “Night Watch,” the word “watch” returns, but this time with a new valence. Instead of an object that accounts for time’s irretrievability, here it appears in the sense of those who ward off time, guard time, and in essence keep it from escaping, as when Barnett writes in the poem “Hyacinth,” “My brother was on watch. ‘Hurry,’ he’d said, / until he was surrounded by sisters.”

As we move forward from “Fugit inreparabile tempus,” Barnett continues meditating on time’s irretrievability as a fundamental way in which we inevitably fail each other and ourselves—“Plenty of time to be alone in the urn, the plastic bag” she writes in “Studies in Loneliness, iv.” In the poem “Art History,” Barnett breathes new life into Yayoi Kusama’s social-media famous Infinity Mirror Rooms as she considers the subtle differences between infinity and eternity, all the while seeking to remember “the task at hand / which is to accept finitude.”

In a poem like “Village of Dolls, i” Barnett again turns to art, this time artist Tsukimi Ayano and “her life-sized dolls,” looking for possible answers to her problem of time’s passing:

She was born in Nagoro, moved away, came back

To a village with only thirty-some people living there.
The birds were pecking the vegetables in her father’s garden.

She made a scarecrow so like him the neighbors passing by said,
“You’re up early.”

That was the first doll.

In Ayano, Barnett finds an example of time retrieved—to create something so salvific, so lifelike, it can stand in for actual life.

It is a similar problem for the Parisian street artist “who goes by the pseudonym Ememem,” referenced in “Fugit inreparabile tempus,” and whose work adorns the book’s cover. “Ememem works only at night, he rides a moped / to wherever the city is breaking apart, / and replaces the missing pieces— / the cracks potholes— / with mosaic grouted right into the gash.” Much like Ayano’s dolls, Ememem’s mosaics fill the absences and erosions left by time’s passing. In essence, he retrieves, however briefly, the irretrievable.

Challenging time in spite of inevitable failure is exactly what Barnett achieves with her fourth collection. The book’s title, Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space, comes from its final poem, “Studies in Loneliness, x.” The speaker must depart her dying friend with the knowledge that her friend’s life may end while she is gone. “I had wished aloud for a solution to the problem of bodies in space, wanting to be in two places at the same time. There, and here.” In a world where all that is material, including the self, slowly and certainly slips away, Barnett defiantly offers us this book as a very real “solution” to her “problem.” Like her “mechanical pencils, endlessly refillable [that] can never be used up,” Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space creates, between the bounds of its covers, a place “which defies logic,” where we can be “safe in our temporary chambers,” both “there, and here.”

LARB Contributor

James Ciano is currently a provost fellow at the University of Southern California, pursuing a PhD in literature and creative writing. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from The Literary Review, Poetry Northwest, and Bennington Review, among others. 


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