Sea Lilies: Selected Poems 1984 – 2003 by John Barnie
Seren Books £9.99
Review by Paul Sutton
Unsettling poetry: poems about urban structures, the vast organisms of the city; but also the miniature perfections of nature, its terrifying fragility.
Years ago I was reading around the subject of urban poetry. I’d long been a fan of Roy Fisher’s work, and was – in desperation – searching for other British poetry with similar weight. Driven towards enfeeblement, and possible insanity, by the fraudulent puffery and self-satisfaction surrounding the “New Generation”, I was relieved to read some powerful prose sequences from Barnie’s book “The City” – a title tantalisingly close to Fisher’s breakthrough work, “City”.
What a book. A sequence of numbered prose poems with disconnected voices, wonderfully unreconciled and contradictory, raging into the urban space. And then in counterweight, a set of lapidary lyrics, equally as haunting:
Yes you can talk. Do you think I came here because I have nothing better to do. That I wanted to leave my country and my home. Do you think I’m here because I like it. There is no faith here, no truth. Only lies. When I look at you I see that you are a lie. When I look into your eyes I know what is there. Hollowness and ashes like the Dead Sea fruit…
If he goes on, I know that one of us will smash the other in the face. I estimate his speed against mine in reaching for the bottle whose green glass has no purpose now except as a weapon.
– Bastard. Bastard. Bastard. Bastard.
New names for the city. Not urbs or polis, or metro-polis. The ancient cities flourished as vividly as dreams cast against a glare. Stone lions and winged Victories and temple columns. To be trowelled out of the desert, picked clean, labelled, numbered, described, drawn. The ancient cities.
The churches have wire mesh over the windows and doors are locked. Someone’s pissed against the wall. That’s how it is. No use being a dreamer. The city rushes on, obsessed with its motion. If it stops it won’t exist…Nothing selfish at all in this, in the city. Not a race against time. Not out to make the rich or down the poor.
Most people arrive
to gather on the shore
and children. The fighter
that nosed in
like the air’s curious
fish, bled itself thin
over the hills.
“Here we are.”
The bald statement
like the man, who shoulders
a suitcase and takes
a son by the arm. They
disappear over Earth’s
trails. Did you ever
see things so strange.
Until recently, Barnie edited “Planet”, an internationalist arts magazine based in Wales. His editorials were the first thing I read, and decided to subscribe immediately. Here was a writer with an Orwell-like detachment and sense of responsibility, with the great man’s total contempt for the piety and constant lies of “progressive” politics.
Unfortunately, this Selected Poems doesn’t contain any of those prose sequences from “The City”, nor anything from the extraordinary verse novel “Ice” – set in a frozen future, the Gulf Stream lost through global warming, mankind living in underground cities run by a New Labour like discourse.
In compensation, and contrast, there are numerous “nature poems”. And don’t let that description put you off; like Peter Reading, Barnie can match his skill in urban engagement with a mastery of poems about our wider environment that are actually interesting to read:
HOW TO WATCH BIRDS
Shallows of the sea frozen over in sheets,
Crackling panes of ice that split, squeaked under foot,
And in between, wrinkled sand like buried ribs.
The tide was turning, sneaking in under the ice,
Cold runs of water like the clearest crystal…
Pitch perfect and coldly exhilarating; why isn’t he better known? I teach 'multi-cultural' poems of deathly enervation to a bottom set of 16-year olds. Maybe they'd stop their (justified) wailing if the examiners prescribed John Barnie. Then again, it wouldn’t help them regurgitate the compulsory Newspeak bilge about diversity, needed to tick boxes when getting “soft-skilled” jobs in our “knowledge-based economy”. Better stick with the anodyne.
© Paul Sutton, January 2007