Poetry Review by David Godkin

John Wall Barger, Hummingbird (Kingsville: Palimpsest, 2012). Paperbound, 75pp., $18.

Anyone who writes with the flourish and intensity of John Wall Barger deserves to beHummingbird read and re-read. His ability to linger over a scene, to ruminate over its history and give himself over to the poetic impulse is complete and genuine. That capacity reaches its apex in the title poem of Hummingbird, a wild subterranean journey into the underbelly of modern Mexico that takes as its model similar descents in the works of Homer, Virgil, and Dante:

…I turn to face Octavio Paz,
eyes broad & generous, he takes
my hand—where are we going? I ask
he smiles, leads me back to market,
now a blueprint of hell, mobs of urban nomads,
lawyers, fishermen, scabby-headed urchins
converge on a man in a straw costume
panting, bleeding at the mouth…

Barger not only asks questions but, in the intemperate fashion of Dante and Virgil, tries to participate in the assault unfolding before him, only to be held back by his guide on the journey, the much loved Mexican poet, Octavio Paz. Unlike his predecessors, however, Paz remains silent and promises nothing beyond what other artists, including Seamus Heaney and painter Frida Kahlo, are pleased to teach Barger going forward. No idealized Beatrice or souls of the dead await Barger by journey’s end, only a communion with great poets, there to invigorate Barger’s art: “blind Akhmatova, powerhouse / bandaged in alpaca, with cane & jar / ploughs her way through these sleepwalkers, / I sing with her of firedogs, blindfolded horses....” Together, Barger and Akhmatova “sing arm in arm of auguries / dead friends” until “exposed, I wake outside my spiral shell / into my real life, the one that’s been waiting / on the El Rosario where slain warriors / return as hummingbirds, where this world / touches the other….”

The swell and roll of images remind me a little of Lowry’s Under the Volcano (also referenced in the poem), a drunken immersion in the chaos of modern Mexico that doesn’t hesitate to link Mexican culture and deadly contemporary politics—witness Barger’s encounter with a murdered Mexican in the street “sneakers blown / off, fly down, temple gashed, eyes open / stomach soft as a broken wing.” Barger’s poem is effective because of its commitment to the brutality of images and to a carefully conceived rhythmic strategy that meshes with that brutality. Comparatively short lines, enjambments, and deep indents drive the poetry forward, give it a wonderful immediacy borne up by an abiding, fearful curiosity very much in keeping with Barger’s predecessors and the subterranean narrative tradition out of which he is writing here. A fascinating poem, and well worth the journey.

—David Godkin

As in The Malahat Review, 180, Autumn 2012, 129-131