Mary Barnard Essay - Critical Essays


Mary Barnard’s poetic output, while quite slim, nevertheless spans and reflects more than half a century of involvement in the art. Her brief, solicitous early lyrics delineate the natural world of the Pacific Northwest with quiet precision, while her later poems reveal her increasing interest in mythological models. Devoid of gimmick and rhetoric, they are as unassuming and as well made as Shaker furniture. The world described in the earlier poems is a world in transition—mostly gone, a remote place of springs and rivers, of meadows and deer, where railroads provide the transfusions of people and goods necessary for a human population to flourish. The later poems cease to reflect a period aspect and, with increasing awareness and confidence in her powers, rely more heavily on invention than recollection. The dominant elements throughout are water and earth rather than air or fire.

Collected Poems

Collected Poems opens in childhood, not a childhood toggled to personal memory, but a childhood that any adult might imagine as belonging to a young girl. In “Playroom,” there is

mournfulness of muddy playgrounds, raw smell of rubbers and wrapped lunches when little girls stand in a circle singing of windows and of lovers.

The lives within the playground sing of the life beyond their experience and place, just as the mature poet sings of her “beyond,” the past:

Hearing them, no one could tell why they sing sadly, but there is in their voices the pathos of all handed-down garments hanging loosely on small bodies.

The poem suggests that life itself is a process of outgrowing “garments,” that the provisional is the domain of the living. Thus, the girls “sing sadly,” not because they understand this condition but because, literally, they embody it.

If the girls have to content themselves with hand-me-downs, a young girl in “The Fitting” must contend with a “trio of hags . . . with cold hands” who roam over her young body and “compress withered lips upon pins” to produce a dress for her. They are the three Fates, who determine the quality and duration of life. As they fit the girl, “The knocking of hammers comes/ from beyond the still window curtain. . . .” Some portion of the future, pertinent to others, is being constructed, but her hands will make nothing: “Her life is confined here, in this depth/ in the well of the mirrors.” The poem ends with the soft snipping of scissors and pulled threads—also not to be hers—lying on the carpet. The tiny separations imparted by the scissors suggest many more consequential leave-takings to come.

The understanding of limitations of which the young may only have vague intimations, and their delineation, drawn from images in the natural world, are the subjects of many of Barnard’s poems. To define a limit, to put a form to what is already form, is to pay it authentic homage. One of the most elemental limits and the source of centuries of solemn meditation from Homer to Wallace Stevens is the seashore. The sea, as a self-sufficient, obverse universe, confronts people both with their otherness, with respect to their mutually incompatible biologies, and with their own “shores,” beyond which begins the vast Not-me, a country about which they are impelled to educate themselves, education being the development of commerce between the two realms. However, their bodies feel a distant affinity to that otherness not easily accessible to language. As the Metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne noted, humanity is “both with moons and tides.”


In “Shoreline,” one of Barnard’s longer poems (and her first published poem), the poet states flatly, “Sand is the beginning and the end/ of our dominion.” However, “The way to the dunes is easy,” as children, who have not yet transformed the sea and land, water and earth, into concepts, instinctively know: “their bodies glow/ in the cold wash of the beach.” When they return from the beach, “They are unmoved by fears/ that breed in darkening kitchens at sundown/ following storm. . . .” Barnard asserts of the shoreline: “This, then, is the country of our choice.” The operative word here is “choice,” for one would have thought that limitation was, on the contrary, merely the country of necessity. By choice, however, one stands by the shore “and long[s] for islands”; thus, in some measure, one equally and consciously partakes of one’s limitations as well. As one gets older, on the other hand, and one’s choices dwindle in the face of increased experience, “We lose the childish avarice of horizons.” The poem ends with the refrain, “sand/ is the beginning and the end/ of our dominion,” though with a different line break, as if to suggest its shifting against “our dominion.” One hears a gentle corrective here both to the infinitude of William Blake’s sand and, prophetically, to the sonorous “dominion” of which death shall have none in Dylan Thomas. Barnard’s poem seems more thoughtfully located in the actual experiences of people, less in the seductive undertow of language.

Those childhoods, suspended in the ancestral and the domestic, however unique they may seem to the individual and web-spun consciousness of children, carry with them the evidence of their lineages. This evidence, which bespeaks generations of labor needed to produce the child into its time, is present everywhere but especially in those objects that address the body, as in “Beds”: “The carved oak headboards of ancestral beds tilt/ like foundered decks from fog at the mouth of the river.” The lovely image of care and protection is addressed specifically to the body, whose vulnerability reaches its apex at night. Fear—of being abducted (into the night, into the future, into death)—alternates with remembered or implied assurances of protection:

Lulla, lulla, will there be, will there always be a place to sleep when smoke gathers in the rafters? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Lulla, lulla. Flood after flood. When the beds float downstream, will there be a place to sleep, Matthew, Mark?

Unlike the children’s playground, the sanctuary of the bed is permanent, even obligingly providing, although somewhat transformed, humanity’s last “resting place.” Consequently, the bones’ sanctuary posture is the horizontal, and it is through this “angle” that one can see that the eternal nature of the forms links people from biology to biography to history, from their bodies to those of their ancestors and of all humankind:

The feathers of my grandmothers’ beds melted into earlier darkness as, bone to earth, I lay down. A trail that leads out, leads back. Leads back, anyway, one night or another, bone to earth.

“The Rapids”

Limits, which provide Barnard with so much of her subject matter, are not inert barriers but, because they are “our choice,” are rather actively engaged in transformations. In “The Rapids,” the poet focuses on the distinction between the boundary as limit and as transformer: “No country is so gracious to us/ as that which kept its contours while we forgot them.” The precisely placed “gracious” suggests how accommodating a contour can manage to be to satisfy one’s need for orientation and security. At the same time, it is an agency of change: “The water we saw broken upon the rapids/ has dragged silt through marshland/ and mingled with the embittered streams of the sea.”

In the last stanza of this three-stanza poem, Barnard telescopes the stationary and the moving into a single image of “ungatherable blossoms floating by the . . . rock.” These “have flung light in my face, have made promises/ in unceasing undertone.” The promises are guarantees...

(The entire section is 3469 words.)