Beautiful, Accessible, and Important: Christian Barter’s Bye-Bye Land
Hello, and welcome! I’m Jackie, one of BOA’s summer interns. I’ve just graduated from SUNY Geneseo with an English Literature degree, and I’m currently carving my way into the publishing world.
BOA is an interesting choice for me. My background is mostly in literary fiction, and while I appreciate the beauty and craft of poetry, I often struggle to really connect with it and see the nuances poets have worked so hard to include.
After browsing the spring 2017 titles for a book to review, I immediately chose Christian Barter’s Bye-Bye Land. It was the book that moved me, the work that I was able to connect with almost instantly. There was something about it that hooked me, and I kept thinking about it for days, even saying “you don’t understand—you have to read it” to my family.
Barter’s poetry is completely accessible to the layperson, even as it shows great poetic skill. The work doesn’t depend on the reader identifying each reference—in fact, it allows for confusion. There were references that I understood instantly, but some that I truly would have missed the meaning of had the footnotes and general style not explained some things. One such example is Barter’s references to T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which inspired this style. Eliot did something very similar with his work, clueing readers in to his references. These footnotes don’t take away from the reading: they add to it. Take the poem found in the section, 'The Meaning of Being Numerous.' It’s a one-sided conversation between two journalists:
It’s good to be with you, Dana. What’s happened so farAfter 'felony' is a footnote which explains that Plaxico suffered from a self-inflicted gunshot wound and then turned himself in for unlawful possession of a firearm. It’s just context. In the rest of the poem, however, the speaker takes a scathing view of humanity:
is they’ve charged Plaxico with a class C felony
for having the gun illegally, which carries
a minimum sentence of three and a half years…
…I know it’s rough out there, Dana,Using modest language to make an incredibly significant point, Barter reminds the reader that the subject—Plaxico—is on the receiving end of a double standard. America loves its violent sports but doesn’t “understand” when the violence comes in the form of self-defense. The context added by Barter is in fact missed by those speaking in the poem. Yet Barter needs very few words to explain this. Barter is able to bring race, class, and American ideals into question with one poem—a hallmark of his style.
especially in some of the neighborhoods these players come from,
but he’s let a lot of people down here—
people who really love football, Dana,
who love to see bone-crunching hits, Dana,
and huge men knocking each other unconscious,
banging heads on the gridiron, Dana.
They just can’t understand this kind of behavior.
His poetry frequently uses juxtaposition to make an argument, reminding the reader of the magnificence just outside, as a Romantic poet might. His footnotes use Wordsworth and Auden to recall their work—their hatred of cities and smokestacks—and remind the reader that the world we live in is an awesome place. This method in particular stood out to me as a way to make his point clear without smacking the reader over the head with his opinion. It’s still artful, still impactful, but there isn’t any misinterpretation.
Barter gives the reader a detailed description of “the last part of the night” with rich verses such as:
And the moon, its plains and cratersThe beauty and wonder in such a stanza then slowly crumbles as a couple wakes for work, talking about something as mundane as garbage and ignoring the glory outside their window. Barter’s intention is crystal clear. He uses stunning language to describe the night, the moon, and even the insects—things we often forget to appreciate—then brings us down with language reflecting dull, daily tasks. How many mornings have I grudgingly started the day without looking at the morning sky?
bright and sharp, even from this distance,
especially from this distance,
unchanged by all this commotion,
its silence unbroken by an early jet passing…
But Barter also doesn’t judge. He isn’t trying to make people feel guilty. It’s just a little reminder that we live in a place that is truly quite amazing, and it might improve our mindset to remember that.
There are poems that cite congressional depositions on the use of torture, Dante’s Inferno, White Eagle’s memories in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and so many other cultural events that you feel history speaking to you from these lines. Barter isn’t afraid to work in the gray area, and you’re connected to his poems. They felt like epiphanies I almost-but-not-quite-reached displayed for me, for my benefit. They’re familiar but still revelations—half-formed thoughts I had but was distracted from.
When you finish Bye-Bye Land, you feel Barter has done you a service by writing. I was grateful to have read the book by the end, and had a compulsion to share it—not a common feeling for me regarding poetry. I was excited by it and the affect it would have on people. This book is relevant, it is extremely well-written, and it is important. Barter manages to use the real, the fictional, and the in-between to craft a book of poetry that forges connections that the average human might miss. What he presents in Bye-Bye Land are truths that aid humanity in empathy and understanding. I leave you with one of my favorite lines from the book in the hopes of showing a potential reader how little Barter needs to makes a massive impact:
it’s as though somewhere along the line
we got talking confused with actually doing something.
To learn more about Bye-Bye Land, visit the BOA Bookstore.
Stock up and save during the BOA Summer Sale—going on now! Take 30% off all BOA Bookstore orders for a limited time with promo code READBOA!