You do not need an MFA in English to read Jessica Barksdale’s latest collection of poetry, you need only to be among the living.
Barksdale has taken a belief from William Carlos Williams that there “. . . are no ideas but in things.” The poems in Grim Honey may be filled with abstract ideas or philosophical meanings, but only after we read of how they come from the objects, the things, that fill our lives. Things like photographs, candies, runny noses, parents, siblings, foreign cities, apartments, and homes.
Upon my first reading of Barksdale’s poems, I felt like I was reading deeply personal poems, maybe a touch of Sylvia Plath? There is nothing wrong with personal poems, but after a second, third, and yes, a fourth reading, I recognized a shared human life. The poems in Grim Honey are about myself, my family, my neighbors, people I’ve read about, deaths, regrets, and much more. The poems come alive in their narrative approach. They have beginnings, middles, and endings, but Barksdale’s endings are often the unexpected, just like real life. In her poem, “This is it,” she writes of her beliefs, her realities, “figuring something out,/whatever it may be/This is what I believe/when I don’t believe/we are here,/and then we are not.”
Another poem, “You Always Love the Broken Ones” speaks of others, “The shy, the friendless,” and “Those with runny noses” and “Those who wear hearing aids.” We wonder if the poet is writing about herself. Who are those? Is that what the poem is about? The poem’s meaning comes from its title and last couplet: “You want them all, the dripping, staggering mess, the wretched, the/wrecked, your shores awash, empty, waiting.” And each reader can fill in the part about who are the “those” we choose to love.
What do we “see” when we read poetry? A story? A lesson? One reason for rereading a poem is to make sure of what we might have missed the first time. Barksdale’s “Older Woman with Dogs.” begins with someone closely observing plants, “You try to ignore the blooms’ companions, the spent crones/crumbling toward death while the youngsters waggle in the breeze.” Also observed is another plant with parts “inappropriate, misplaced.” The observer sees herself in every “misplaced” part of that plant and it is “proof that nature supports the different.” It is a poem of unexpected comfort.
For many of you readers who are long-time residents of this area, the author’s name, Jessica Barksdale, should ring several bells. Barksdale is not only the author of more than fifteen novels, but she is also the now-retired professor of English at Diablo Community College. What a pleasure to encourage you to read her again. Barksdale’s use of language, her keen ability to see what often lies beneath a first viewing, and her empathy for our human condition are the things that make her stand out as a poet worth reading. — Sunny Solomon
Also available by Jessica Barksdale: The Play’s the Thing; The Burning Hour; Her Daughter’s Eyes; One Small Thing; The Instant When Everything is Perfect; When You Go Away; The Matter of Grace; Prime; The Bear Strategy; Where I am Now; Forgotten; The Wolf at the Window; Walking with Her Daughter; How to Bake a Man; Relationships and Other Stuff, Vol. 2; Monsters in the Agapanthus; Swimming Lessons; The Only Thing I See; The Tables of Joy; The Magic of Longing.