Poet's Choice: 'Elegy with a Mute Bell' by Brian Barker

By Brian Barker
Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Elegy with a Mute Bell" began in a workshop taught by Edward Hirsch at the University of Houston where I was a graduate student. The assignment was to write a poem that addressed the notion of form -- poetic or other -- in some way. At the time, I had been thinking about the relationship between form and function, between form and the essence of a thing. What happens when something loses its form? Does it cease to exist? Does it continue on as a figment of its former self, or does it become something else entirely? If the latter, how much is the new thing dependent on human will or imagination? These are large, abstract questions that are grounded in this poem in one object: a clapperless bell that I took as a keepsake from my great-grandmother's house after her death.

At least, I thought the questions were grounded in the bell. The surprise of the poem -- for me at the time of composition and, I hope, for the reader -- is the imaginative leap in the second section of the poem. Here the questions take on an emotional weight as they address the human form, the body and its inevitable diminishment.

The poem is an elegy, but in rereading it, I can't help but think of it as a statement about poetry itself. Form in the world breaks down, but poetry pushes back against this transience of being. It makes palpable again everything we lose to the unyielding forces of time.

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Elegy with a Mute Bell -- in memory of C.M.L., 1899-1982


This is what I've chosen

to remember her by. Not her cabinets

of chipped china, or shelves of porcelain


bric-a-brac, or boxes of empty snuff tins,

but a small bell. The carved handle painted

green, and where the green has given way

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