It has been eight years since Catherine Barnett published her first collection of poems, “Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced.” Since then, she’s won a Whiting Writers’ Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has split time between teaching gigs at NYU, the New School and a shelter for young mothers in New York City.
Eight years of waiting ratchets up a reader’s expectations, and the pressure on the writer to meet them. Barnett’s latest, “The Game of Boxes,” thankfully does not disappoint. Here’s a precise, august and deeply moving collection of poems easily devourable between Red Line stops. Split into three sections—“endless forms most beautiful,” which deals with parental abandonment; “sweet double, talk-talk,” about sex and unquestionably the strongest section, which is saying something; and “the modern period,” on motherhood and creativity—Barnett dispenses bullets of wisdom with a frightening accuracy. The poems here are brief and soft-voiced in a way that belies the profundity of her insights, and written in a spare, simple language that makes those insights ring like a tuning fork. Take part three of “sweet double, talk-talk”:
If you want I’ll
cover you with my body.
I’ll be a sheet draped over you,
the bone of my pelvis will press your tailbone.
I still smell something harmed,
but the knocking in my chest disappears
when I stretch my arms across yours.
Simple, precise—not a word wasted. Like all the poems here, it’s wonderfully intimate, the written equivalent of pillow talk. There are a bunch of other examples I could point to—the lover who is a “lozenge of smut, almost hollow inside”; the comfort in knowing “the pharaohs yearned to be young forever and arranged for boats to carry them to the afterworld”; a child “feeding the endless black laces through the line of bright aluminum eyes” of his shoes but it’s hard to point to too many without feeling you’re leaving others out.
The title of the collection refers to the diversion wherein players take turns drawing lines on a dotted grid and forming squares. The object is to have created more boxes than your opponent by game’s end. It’s the kind of game you play in the backseat of a car on a long road trip, once all other entertainments have been exhausted. One that involves using your adversary’s own work against them. It can go on for an infinitely long time; all you need are more dots. Barnett mines this metaphor beautifully throughout this fine collection, turning love, sex and life itself into games to be played, to be won or lost, to pass the time. (Eric Lutz)
“The Game of Boxes”
by Catherine Barnett
Graywolf Press, 88 pages, $15