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The Hidden Ordinary: Two Poets (Book 2 of 2)

GENTLY READ LITERATURE, editor Daniel Casey, has just published its Spring 2014 issue. You will find a link (to copy into your browser) to this fine online journal below. In this issue I reviewed two extraordinary poets, Catherine Barnett and Jack Ridl, exploring themes of "the hidden ordinary" in their recent poems. This duet of reviews is the feature of today's post. I hope you enjoy and seek out their work.

Spring 2014 Issue

The Hidden Ordinary: Glenda Burgess Reviews Two Poets
The Game of Boxes, Catherine Barnett, Greywolf Press, 2012
Practicing to Walk like a Heron, Jack Ridl, Wayne State University Press, 2013

The two poets Catherine Barnett and Jack Ridl speak well beside one another. Their poetic styles and themes resonate uniquely in these books of collected poems. Impressions, delicate and telling, fossils of the hidden ordinary and intimate.

The Game of Boxes by Catherine Barnett, recipient of a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2012 James Laughlin Award from the American Academy of Poets, comprises a collection of poems crisscrossing themes of vulnerability and intimacy. Barnett, author of the poetry collection Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced, extends her archeology of human loneliness and dislocation in The Game of Boxes, a rich work of intellectual and thematic poetic dialogs that riff off concepts from sources as various as Darwin and biological diversity, categorical thinking by Kant, a phrase from Keats in a letter to J.A. Hessey, even the reasoning of the Renaissance physician Paracelsus that “What makes a man ill also cures him.” This scholarly grounding informs much of Barnett’s poetry on motherhood, the erotic, child and parental bonds of trust, the alienated modernist’s soul. A thin dividing line on the page wavers between ecstasy and dread expressed in Barnett’s lyrical unwavering language, “Depends on how you define ‘nothing’-/ I think it’s a little shard of the whatnot/ I keep trying to name.” Barnett digs at the double-talk of passion and reason, “little shocks of pure mind,/ and I like them there, yes, ageless,/ persuasion’s design and rush.”

Perhaps what resonates deepest is Barnett’s ability to build on themes of cognitive- spiritual dissonance, evoking in these poems the very contradictions she deplores: the gap between sureness and mystery, need and abyss, the material and the unknown. In writing of absolution, of the verbs listen and forgive and the unique forms of human suffering, Barnett describes people in “Chorus [We didn’t believe]” entering a church transformed as animus shapes of personal pain and endurance. With this exquisite image of tangible wounded-ness, Barnett speaks of an elephant,
and her eyes
they shone like glass before it breaks. She looked
like she might fly but only walked down the aisle
in a dirty gown of wrinkles, so wrinkled and slow
and vast and silvery, the whole galaxy shivering.

Barnett’s themes shred intimacy as a draining, a taking, a trickle-down, a loss; “she’s already given herself to the world” she writes. Bare poem fragments hint of Bacchanalian appetite and aftermath:
I know agape means both dumbly
Open and not the kind of love,
That climbed the stairs to you.
(Of All Faces)

Barnett’s ability to find the inner nerve and follow it to and away from regret make her poems ring like powerful fables.

Practicing to Walk like a Heron by Jack Ridl, professor emeritus of Hope College, comprises Ridl’s second book of poetry. His earlier work, Broken Symmetry, was named best book for poetry by The Society of Midland Authors, and Ridl was named Michigan’s Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and coauthored with Peter Schakel Approaching Literature. Ridl observes, with an almost Darwinian eye for that which endures, the nature of the long familiar: couples, childhood, the human obsession with the bizarre...and the hidden alone. Ridl’s poems on what draws us into connection provide a thoughtful counterbalance to Catherine Barnett’s study of what then happens within.

Sections of Ridl’s collection – From Our House To Yours, The Enormous Mystery of Couples, Interlude: “Heh Skinny, The Circus Is In Town,” and The Hidden Permutations of Sorrow – gather poems around emotional epiphanies in the most daily of moments. Family life, preparing for the holidays, clearing up after a storm, an itinerant’s life on the road, moving past loss. These are poems that explicate and punctuate: the death of an arielist, the turning of seasons, the lost and the dislocation of memory. Writing of the routine that is love, and the intimacy that is routine, two lines stand out: the infinitely rich, “We will sleep/ within the muted infinity of each other” (The Enormous Mystery of Couples), and the wry, “Sometimes sentimental is our way/ of holding on.” (Ron Howard’s on the Cover of AARP). In imagery that does not err, Ridl addresses the acceleration of modern life, musing on the manual labor required to restore function to the tools of old. In a poem titled, “My Wife Has Sent Me an Email,” he writes,
After lunch
today, I’m going to find the trowel

my father used. I’ll get a rag and
some rust remover and bring it back.

Jack Ridl sparingly inks in tender everyday experiences in poems that both startle and reassure. When we are at our most human and alien: when we discover ourselves in the process of losing reassurances of what we thought we knew. In the title poem, “Practicing to Walk Like a Heron,” Ridl’s narrator practices stepping across the room in “the walk of solemn monks.” Lifting his legs one after the other in stilted stillness
the heron’s mute way, across the
room, past my wife who glances
up, holds her slender hands
above the keys until I pass.

Why mimic the heron? Perhaps Ridl’s answer lies in the collection’s closing poem, titled simply “The Heron.” Here we find language that touches – even evokes – spiritual transcendence,
...she would bend
her knees, raise her wide wings,
and lift into the welcome grace
of the air... her great feathered cross moving above the trees.
(The Heron)

Jack Ridl’s work is grounded in observations of the extraordinary ordinary, and the subject matter of how we spend our days compelling when read beside Catherine Barnett’s profound spiritual and philosophical rhetorics.

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