The machinery of recognition and honors is far from perfect: John Keats was neglected or slighted by the acknowledged experts of his time. Forgotten figures like Henry James Pye and Alfred Austin have borne the title of poet laureate. This familiar truth about the nature of recognition comes to mind when reading the distinctive and distinguished selected poems of Dick Barnes, who died in 2000 at the age of 68 without having garnered much in the way of awards or fame.
A native Californian, Barnes knew classic poetry. He also knew the speech and ways of rural people. Both kinds of knowledge give conviction to his poem "Up Home Where I Come From." It begins:
Roy Smith ran traps for furs
but a hawk got caught in one of them
spreading its wings, there in the trap
turning its sharp beak toward him
as he came to get it out, its glaring eyes so deep
they seemed to open onto another world in there
and steady: thus the hawk in times past
came to be an image of aristocracy.
Unshowy art underlies the simple telling, the naturalness of the language, a voice that can say "another world in there" as naturally as "thus the hawk in times past." The narrative says that one leg hung by a tendon but "with his sharp pocketknife/ Roy cut it off and left it lay// But brought the hawk home/ to feed it til it got well."
That much of the poem is skillful narrative. Barnes takes things well beyond that:
is what we can know of dignity.
We aspire to it ourselves but seldom --
seldom. Nailed to the tree
Jesus must have been as still as that,
as wild. And I'd say
that was the right way to be, there.
Later it got well and he let it go,
our hearts leapt up when we saw it
living somehow in the wild with its one leg:
in its life we felt forgiven.
Probably it learned to pin its prey to the ground
and eat there, running that risk.
Risen, that was one thing Jesus did too:
showed he was alive and could still eat.
The first reference to Jesus seems daring, maybe even for a moment a false step -- can such an allusion be appropriate? But after the vision of the damaged hawk surviving and "our" feeling of elation and forgiveness, the second reference to Jesus is triumphant, with its plain words, mainly of one syllable. The starkness and understatement in those last two lines counterbalance the wit -- a grave, serene wit like that of George Herbert and Emily Dickinson -- that chooses a word that applies to the anecdote of the bird and the story of Jesus: "risen."
This is the work of a masterful poet, restrained and bold in the right places and the right ways. (Dick Barnes's poem "Up Home Where I Come From" is from his "A Word Like Fire: Selected Poems." Other Press. Copyright © 2005 by Patricia Barnes.)