Book review by S.G. Mallett

The Vanishing Point: Smog Mother by John Wall Barger

In his preface to his translation of The Histories of Herodotus, Tom Holland writes the internet, with its seemingly infinite web of hyperlinks, has provided a whole new metaphor for Herodotus’ discursive style of relaying information. When he refers to the capture of Nineveh by the Medes as an episode I will recount in a later chapter’ (I.I06), and then never does so, the frustration for the reader is akin to that of clicking on a broken link.”

Expect no such frustration in Smog Mother, a poetry collection by John Wall Barger through Palimpsest Press. But expect frustration of a parallel type. Never is Barger’s smog to be confused with dry ice, for all of his goods have turned already. The smoke-fog of the self, product of entropy, mask of whatever detritus we still label as natural: neither doubt fidelity—it’s immaterial—nor care if the horse who broke Nietzsche was real or from Dostoyevsky’s imagination. It’s a flat circle, to live is to suffer is to surround and be surrounded. Barger’s lived poetics sees things bleed; the center holds too well; mere apathy is loosed upon the world; Yeats says all that is personal soon rots / The smiles between these mothers grilling goat” caps the collection’s first sequence and the invocation Barger takes from Yeats’ A General Introduction for my Work” is fitting in so far as Barger and Yeats share a sober sense of something like a panpsychism yet that in the living is a thingness. Where apathy seems to swap haecceity for quiddity, sobriety sees detritus next to finches’ wings, which later move in Dukkha” evokes an anti-Hopkins and speaks to those of us who sadden when drunk on language: this is anticipated in the same poem with Butterflies born of plastic / Dappled things / Listen it is the shopkeeper,” where all possible glory is starkly absent and not apophatic. For all the lived world’s hazy elements the linking through-lines guide but guide unfeelingly. The frustration, then, is learning to pin the butterfly’s wings by feel; to expect, to try, and to fail.

Slipperier than to name a poem is to name a collection. Gaining momentum in the poetry marketplace is to go eponymous and with the heaviest hitter while omitting the and other poems. While Smog Mother the poem delineates itself and sits alone and in the matriarch’s spot and simply sounds different than the rest by leaving form for chants, to see Smog Mother the character or entity as the only figure here is to err and is as harmful as only reading Hamlet’s part in Hamlet.

Among the faceless mother, the photocopied dog; the cross-eyed man on the road” with Bright hula hoops / On each arm” who Limps / Out of another world”; the boy in the shape of a jug; Barger’s archetypes fade and weave in and out of the synchronologies. As opposed to the affect/effect of the hooded father—I am thinking of what Wittgenstein writes where he will give no sources, because it is indifferent to me whether what I have thought has already been thought before me by another”—where Barger’s epistemes are equally self-aware, carnivorous (that is to say, they’re completely selfish in their gaze and their camera-obscura-sense), the archetypal material of the faceless mother is narrative and is the negative image of the hooded father, and Barger admits to this form of voyeurism in and on the text. Among such cryptoscopophilia, Cryptoscopophilia” is one of the least overtly cryptoscopophilic poems, speaking to the tourist who sees their plight’s feeling’s disconnected from their current site. It takes a sober reader to file the intoxicated jump-cutting villain in a Russian silent film” to I howl my happiness! / Local men beside a bushfire / stop their conversation, / staring” to high-fiving paupers” to my poetry is a magic wand” to Teach me suffering!” to I write all this down. / It is all gold” and to A mother weeps / beside her burning son. / I dance around them / twirling. How can I help it? / They are so pretty” from Delirious in the Pink House” in the catalog of the inevitable: how to delineate, how to separate the I from the I.” But consider the facets of guilted privilege in A Girl on Khaosan Road Selling Lottery Tickets Gently Hides Her Two Withered Arms” with Sorrow demanding balance, / aching to be acknowledged,” soberly cinematic with the preceding lines insisting: Slow down, breathe. The scene clears.” Whereas the faceless mother gives of herself everything except facial expression, all the hooded father is is a face, watching and unmoving, unmovable, and unknowing. The obverse face won’t stop staring. But Barger dual-wields a loupe and scalpel with the craftspersonship that almost gets you to write a phrase like a poet at the height of their powers—playing Duchamp in Tai Po’s megamall, a flaneur at flush hour, as only perspicacious as a urinal cake allows—but these images for all their viscerality are too hard, too graspable—ever recircling and recircling to what’s seen of the wounded dog. Each limp reminds us of the last, the first (“Once past / he flashes into the dark” sans limp!” from A Stop on the Night Bus”), and back again to the spirit of the now. Barger’s poems elucidate all this as efficiently as signs in a station of the metro are read from the moving metro car. The object of the verb is necessarily faced with what’s hard to look at and away from.

The oasis we thought we saw we thought oracular, each stop a possible portal. And necessarily we call, more of the dark, / like oracles” from out of the photocopied heaven of Bullfight, Plaza Mexico.” Within societal reason. All that’s dirty is the floor and our thoughts. I can’t pin down what stage the voice thinks themselves at, whether neotenic or world-weary, and here I mean the voice in the technical, effected/affected sense. The reticulate voices stalemate. These verbs the portals conjugate feel torturous in the now and shameful after, like wishing for the world of warmth from a stranger and preferring the stranger’s warmth to one’s own wife’s warmth in Woman on a Hong Kong Bus at Night” echoes this eschatology, this paradox of wishing for what one has. The Jungian reading of Smog Mother is neither relevant nor interesting. What is interesting is watching the poet associate the lines of worry on their face with their cause, watching the process of growth in real-time. And return to the collection’s epigraph as proof of the cinematographic design haunting each moment’s view, facsimile of event, authentic copy, the illusion is the sum, what else can a tourist do, really, but cry?” the augend is the question Barger misces from Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). And like a good film’s plots, you’re what forms the links. By the end, Barger’s pursuits lead to roots in Bergamo Airport, 3:30 am.,” finding the answers he needs or thinks he needs in the soft-tough face” of a boy tucked under his mother’s arm” between the self and the photocopy, the torquedness. It’s not the banality of evil: it’s the answer, it’s how it works, and though Barger tends to favour the one-word line, in this poem the four-line volta stands as you can see it in his eyes, boredom. No, exhaustion. / Barbwired in by freedom itself: a longing for the grave. / Seeing no other choice, he stands. He joins the line / beside his baby sister. Ungrateful. //”

S.G. Mallett


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