Work by Sarah Jane Barnett.
Auckland: Hue & Cry Press (2015).
Reviewed by Sue Wootton.
Work is Sarah Jane Barnett’s second poetry collection. Her first, A Man Runs into a Woman, also published by Hue & Cry Press, was a finalist in the 2013 NZ Post Book Awards. Work consists of six long narrative poems, linked (as I understand it) by the theme of the work required to establish – and maintain – a meaningful life.
A concept project of this nature foregrounds issues of form and content. Where will the poet place the balance between the demands of story and that of poetry? Barnett announces the primacy of this issue through typography. Some pages ‘look like’ prose and others ‘look like’ poetry. The first page of the opening poem, “Addis Ababa”, for example, is set as a block paragraph, and seems to announce a book of prose. On the second page, the typography is shaken up into uneven line breaks, before settling – for a while – into couplets. This settling/unsettling continues through the eleven pages of “Addis Ababa”, and, indeed, through all the poetry in Work. The approach is not simply cosmetic. At a language level, the content also morphs between conventions of poetry and the conventions of prose, Barnett’s craft exemplifying the process of working out how and where and to whom one might belong – a wrestling with how “the second language disrupts the first” (“Addis Ababa”).
“Running with my Father”, for example, opens with ‘poetic’ typesetting which calls to mind a zig-zag running track. The language itself, in the opening sequence, does not demand the line breaks, and could equally well be set as prose. But at line 13, the poet, ‘running away from’ the quotidian realities of husband, son and kitchen, suddenly enters ‘the metronomic push of my breath’, and the language shifts accordingly, becoming fluid, richly imagistic, rhythmic: ‘I am a lashed / horse with a foaming bit. I am a sled dog / pulling my body behind me.’ Later in this poem, a section set as prose has a hallucinogenic quality, intensely rhythmic, as the scene is worked out in compressed poetic language:
Long exhale rhyme working into the cords of the body disorder
the wind draws away words the hard push up the hill past the
church work arms swing almost like wings when O run everything
stretches away I become a horizon a habit in habit inhabit the …
Apart from an unfortunate (and uncharacteristic) typo (‘prostrate’ for ‘prostate’), Hue & Cry Press have done a superb job of producing a book true to Barnett’s themes and her specific vision for the book’s typography, thus demonstrating a justified deep engagement with, and respect for, Barnett’s writing. Work is richly imagined and elegantly written. The poems are bold explorations: of language, form and content. Their careful imaginings of the particulars of six different human situations offer a variety of perspectives on the work required to live well – with ourselves and with others. Barnett’s voice is compassionate and intelligent. Work is relevant, vital and refreshing.
Sue Wootton’s most recent publication is Out of Shape, a letterpress portfolio of poems hand set and printed by Canberra letterpress artist Caren Florance (Ampersand Duck, 2013). She lives in Dunedin and is the editor of the Monday Poem column in the Otago Daily Times. Her website is suewootton.com.