The little David Barber I've read, particularly in his book "The Spirit Room", show him to be a strong poet who can attack a myriad of subjects, arcane and mysterious, and come up with a compelling language that makes us consider our convenient thinking. Not a terse poet by any means, he still has the economy of line and measure of rhetoric that keeps his images in fighting trim. There is nothing slack in the verse that I've come across. His is the ideal of a "thinking person's" poetry from an author who does not forget that there's someone he's talking to -- an off-page other, an audience -- and it's this intimacy that keeps the poems from becoming private journal entries, cryptic, gnomic, that have found their way onto the public page.
Most of the time , anyway, this poem effort by Barber, (published in Slate here in December of 2002) is a dreary thing, hermetically sealed and curious, full of gaps a reader is meant to furnish with details from their own recollection. The problem, though , is that the piece is entirely too sealed off from reference that would make us care about what's transpiring, or what the dynamic between the formal and the italicized text might actually be -- a beggar and a taunting benefactor, a homeless person with a touch of schizophrenia trying to make formalize his ambivalence about what ever redundant ritual he or she have assigned themselves? There is no compelling reason to care or take interest in the goings on here, since nothing of context, locale, or season is given to make us look again and pay attention to the twisted circumlocution.
Rusty, twisted: scrounge one from a scrap-heap plank.
How long did you say you've been down on your luck?
Rasping groan, out it comes: crude thing, fang-like.
Exactly how low are you intending to sink?
Lockjaw's no picnic. Look sharp: don't get pricked.
Wouldn't it be simpler to stick with the tin cup?
There's an old crone I know—a classic skinflint.
Doesn't she ever get wise to your act?
When you live by your wits, you go with your gut.
How do you sleep with such sham in your heart?
Root cellar, spice larder, bomb shelter, ice box.
Does it really help when you smack your lips?
Stir like you mean it. Keep up the sweet talk.
Do you know in your bones when she's ready to crack?
Steam up the panes. A round stone also works.
Are you trying to say you'll do whatever it takes
This is , I think, a timid presentation of a schizoid trying vainly to think about the world he or she lives in. It brings us only so far into a personality's habit of address, and then backs off, preferring a safe, literary vagueness, something less than the eternal rage that is the tone of most of the unhospitalized unfortunates I come across and on occasion talk to.
Background would have made this a stronger poem, context, color, a concrete place where all this imagined dialogue takes place, with the bits of talk
coming in more evocative snippets, things truly overheard and fleeting, provocative against the ear. It's certainly within Barber's considerable powers to do; an interplay between the environment and the personalized language would give us a mood, a tone -- under rated things in the mad search for either anal-retentive rhyme schemes or it's undesirable opposite, an all Explosive expressionism -- that would make the ideas emerge much better and play on our empathic instincts all the better.
The dialogue, by itself, plays not all, and this is a shame from a poet as good as Barber.