Brian Barker’s second collection of poetry, The Black Ocean, opens with the 13-page “Dragging Canoe Vanishes from the Bear Pit into the Endless Clucking of the Gods.” Spliced into numerous sections in which Barker’s memory of visiting Cherokee, N.C., is merged with meditations on America’s abuse of Native Americans, “Dragging Canoe” forecasts much of what’s to come in The Black Ocean: poems that plumb the depths of American history to examine our present in “heart-wrenching poems [that] glow with the vision…of last things” (Edward Hirsh).
The Black Ocean has a Biblical/Chaucerian feel, with its host of legendary and historical characters, such as Abe Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Edgar Allan Poe and Billie Holiday. In poems like “In the City of Fallen Rebels,” countless figures enter the narrative: “the boy…dragging his death / by a string”; “the angels…,/ …those starved revenants”; “Mrs. Wen./…trying to coax the register open”; the gods who “refuse to blink”; and, finally, the poet who is “scared of the dark” (38, 38, 39, 39, 40). Jockeying back and forth between long and short in the first two sections, these characters have a dual function, serving as devices through which Barker meditates on a subject in the long poems, and as personas to reinvigorate his vision in the shorter.
The second section opens with “Visions for the Last Night on Earth,” in which the speaker dreams of
Abe Lincoln pacing our hallway,
his arms folded behind his back like a broken umbrella, the clock ticking,
…America, watching closely, purring greedily,
as they gulped down the last starlight, dreaming of some other dawn. (16)
In the third poem (six pages), “Poe Climbs Down from the Long Tapestry of Death to Command an Army of Street Urchins Huddled in the Dusk,” Barker addresses the “swarming abattoirs of night, / [the] droning calliopes of the dead” as Poe climbs down through ghettos and “torture chambers // in countries somewhere off the map” (22, 17). The next poem, “Lullaby for the Last Night on Earth,” is a much quieter, single-paged lyric in which the speaker watches his house “go down like a gasping zeppelin of bricks” and turns to “walk the train tracks to the sea” (23). The section ends with the four-paged “The Last Songbird”: “We saw you once, here on earth, / singing from the icy turrets at dawn / as the tarry wind whipped skyward…” (24).
By the third section, Barker transitions almost purely into persona, opening with the seven-page “Gorbachev’s Ubi Sunt from the Future that Will Soon Pass,” in which Gorbachev addresses Reagan from his future grave. In the next poem, “Silent Montage with Reagan in Black and White,” Barker enters Reagan’s mind, who:
feels like his head is lit by a pot of boiling milk—
He feels the boy take the lens of a projector
into his mouth,
the cold metal, the heat of the lamp
and the white room sinks
into the black Pacific… (34)
The fourth section acts as a series of brief diary entries from the point of view of those witnessing the last days in poems like “Field Recording: Billie Holiday from the Far Edge of Heaven” and “Visions for the Last Night on Earth.” The Black Ocean concludes with the 10-page “A Brief Oral Account of Torture Pulled Out of the Wind,” which uses titled sections to conflate the vision and voice of Barker’s characters, based on almost anything he settles his gaze upon, in sections with titles like, “What the Hood Whispers to the Head” and “What the Fly Whispers to the Voices in the Wall.”
Perhaps most impressive about this collection is how it challenges the reader, while tackling enormously controversial social issues. Many of the poems use extraordinarily long sentences broken into lines that compel the reader feverishly forward, but under marvelous control. “Visions for the Last Night on Earth” is two sentences broken into two 16-line stanzas. The next poem, “Poe Climbs Down from the Long Tapestry of Death…,” uses a mere three periods in five pages.
“Though these poems are frequently dizzying and threatening,” says Kevin Prufer, “they are also distinguished by technical dexterity, sonic complexity, and a truly visionary sensibility.” The Black Ocean is poetry’s version of an instant classic, and confirms what many already believed: Brian Barker is a contemporary master.