JULY 24, 2020
IN GEODE, SUSAN BARBA’S conceit is geological time, and it proves a timely guide. With a pandemic challenging our ability to predict the future, to act with care for strangers’ bodies, and to prioritize nature, her poems offer “immensity / with speed bumps” and a macro-view through a micro-lens. Her beguilingly exact poems chisel open interior spaces often unseen in everyday life. As in geodes, much of the richness of our perceptions and yearnings remains hidden, mute until it finds an Emersonian sayer. It takes a highly skilled poet to reveal us to ourselves; geode signals the arrival of one whose angle — and anvil — of vision is acute and necessary.
Barba’s earlier book, Fair Sun (2017), includes her grandfather’s testimony from his survival of the Armenian Genocide. While that collection explored history’s felt presence, geode provides readers with a compass for the psychological terrain of the current moment and for the ecological and social forces that have catalyzed a health crisis. She situates lifecycles — generational and geological, personal and planetary — within Earth’s “[b]lue-green grid of constant revolution,” prompting us to reconsider the terms of our habitation. Like Elizabeth Bishop, she presents “demands for a different world” in a book that “driv[es] to the interior,” albeit of our own country and private lives.
Here “we are ticking away, / all of us clocks,” Barba acknowledges in “The Minutes,” but she posits the geode as a rival timepiece, independent of human reference. Shorn from limestone or shale, geodes often fit inside the palm, their plain exteriors disguising crystalline cores. A geode also records the context of its making in the way that a poem scores somatic experience in the sedimentary layers of language. “[I]n words and rocks / the order is the meaning,” she notes, cuing us to the specificity of her syntax and her poems’ layering.
Precision and subtle intelligence reward her reader. The poem “Practice,” for instance, offers a slender homily on how to root, in the earth, rage that comes from witnessing human folly.
Your anger is a scrim,
clouding your vision.
You see, you hear,
and then you testify, you judge.
Write the necessary elegies,
the songs of temporary
fury. Human seasons are
as leaves, not oaks.
See what forest
has arisen from the rot.
to be as generous.
Oak, whose girth
exceeds my reach
forever I am
at your feet,
The poem switches from second to first person as stern self-advice becomes an ode to the oak. Dwarfing us in size and longevity, species of oak tree can live more than 500 years. This largeness (and largesse) in the natural world provides an example to the narrator. Bidding herself to write “the necessary elegies,” she tempers anger with metaphor — human lives as “leaves” on long-lived trees, making seasonal departures. We, ourselves, won’t be here long.
Depicting how sense perceptions rapidly inform ways we “testify” and “judge,” the poem counsels two responses: artistic resistance and the consolation of our relative inconsequence. As the poem shifts, it changes posture. It begins with the speaker looking out at the world of human squabble and concludes by “looking up,” praising a tree whose width surpasses her grasp.
Barba’s poems reliably render the problematics of time, systems of care, and human responsibility on a comprehensive scale, venturing in unexpected directions. The early poem “Exhibit 2” considers the psychology of habitation. What does it mean to dwell? What kind of living happens in the living room? What does our typical mode of shelter — its prevalence of walls and doors — invite or inhibit? She poses an answer in 10 compressed lines.
The centrifugal force of a room:
four walls, a ceiling.
Nothing can get in
but what you admit.
Part dark harbor,
part isolation chamber.
A man who’d lived out of doors
said what he’d missed most
was not a roof, not a lock,
but a doorknob.
In a single stanza, which means “room” in Italian, the walls and ceiling appear to flee from the center. The dweller, meanwhile, exerts agency in choosing what to “admit,” perhaps in both senses — allowing entry or confessing. Privacy, fetishized in American culture and most often celebrated in its violation, seemingly protects us from vulnerability: what we do not wish to “admit,” whether guest or secret. In its spare exactness, the poem underscores the tension between “isolation chamber” and “dark harbor,” or loneliness versus chosen solitude. Thus the concluding meditation — from a man who has lived not “outdoors” but, more concretely, “out of doors” — suggests that the doorknob signifies having a choice in how we negotiate self and other, how we demarcate interiority in physical space.
Poems in geode also explore the crystalline webs between parent and child, lover and beloved, self and commodity: dyads with socially reinforced centripetal pull. Barba tracks individuation within these relationships and a primal desire for self-possession. As a daughter ventures into ocean surf, her dark head of hair bobs, visibly, as if she were performing a captioned ballet: “ballon after ballon / ‘this is my life!’” The child’s postural repudiation of parental care is recast as a secular blessing in the poem “Retrospective, Agnes Martin,” which addresses the expressionist painter known for her years of disciplined solitude in the New Mexican desert. That poem concludes: “if I could give you one thing / it would be untitled space.” Autonomy is the essential assertion of children and artists, alike.
Similarly, the speaker in “Wide Margin Love Poem” bids for a Rilke-esque notion of love as the protection (rather than the collapse) of identity in a narrow column that threads the middle of the page.
Wise about the claims individuals make on each other, even in love, the poet also contests the demands of commerce. In “Blank Placard Dance,” a poem about a protest dance performed in 1967 by Anna Halprin, the speaker urges her addressee to “retain your stony / surface, stony structure. / Defend the palimpsest / that is your face.” Expressivity, or the ability of the face to compose an array of changing affects, is what anonymizing data collection, targeted marketing, Botox, and stealth technology seeks to minimize or eliminate.
While geode features keenly cut lyrics, economic to the syllable, that elucidate murky interiors of what remains of “private life,” Barba also showcases her sophistication in other modes. In the epic poem “River,” she extends her concern for the tenets of personhood to the Colorado River, reinforcing her primary argument that we privilege human life — and extractive capitalism — over the earth’s health at our peril. The 12-page poem recounts the legal case The Colorado River Ecosystem v. The State of Colorado, which would have granted the river legal standing of “personhood and rights” akin to other ecosystems such as the Ganges River in India. The poem maps the river’s magnitude, extending 14 million acre-feet from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, supplying arterial lifeblood to nearly 40 million human beings, four million acres of cropland, and countless creatures. An epic catalog of the watershed’s species includes the humpback chub and peregrine falcon, the bonytail and black bear, a list she punctuates with the poignant refrain, “stay with me now.”
Naming these dependent species underscores that the river is “a person” on whom an ecosystem, a nation of life, depends. Yet the case was dismissed in 2017 by the United States District Court for the District of Colorado, leading Barba to ask one of the book’s searing questions:
Is it by virtue of this immense life-
that the river is not a rights-holder
but a natural object,
meant for profit,
like slaves like women
an order apart
like the roe and the deer?
Misuse of the Colorado River is situated as part of a broader pathology of patriarchal capitalism, which refuses to acknowledge its instrumentalized “objects” as subjects. This section of the poem concludes with a riveting quotation from a 1968 casebook in property law: “[A]fter all, land, like woman, was meant to be possessed.”
The legal suit for the Colorado River epitomizes claims we might wish to make within our own lives against the exploitation of our labor, privacy, or attention. In the poem “Dispersal,” the narrator recounts making a long commute where she feels “the light slip / the more she strove.” Grappling with global news, her neighbor’s razed forest, and needy children in the backseat, she composes a petition:
re. space she wanted
than a margin
re. time she wanted
never to accept it —
the trees succumbing
to storms with proper names
the grass succumbing
she and I and you
and they and he
more than a life
in the wind.
Susan Barba dramatizes ordinary life, riven with obligation, and a yearning for time, space, and an identity untethered to others’ claims. Her aesthetic marries the elliptical startle of Lorine Niedecker and Robert Creeley to the documentary impulse of Muriel Rukeyser and Charles Reznikoff, advocating for a comity with the earth and with our fragmented selves that is both visionary and diagnostic. We cannot have permanence or limitless abundance. But geode asserts that we might still claim purpose in our time on this spherical spinning rock.
Heather Treseler’s Parturition (2020) won Ireland’s Munster Literature Centre’s international chapbook prize. Her poems appear in The Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southern Humanities Review, andThe Iowa Review, among other journals.