Last summer, I drove to a high school in a central St. Louis suburb for a writing and publishing fair. Seminars were held inside the school; the parking lot had been cordoned off for booths, demonstration areas and even a children’s playground. I wandered around the large number of booths, and then came to one that looked rather forlorn – a simple set-up of boards and posts, little decoration and one man about my age with a hopeful expression on his face.
I looked at the plain sign, which read “Missouri’s Poet Laureate.” And then I did something I’m not known for doing: I walked right up to Walter Bargen and introduced myself. You see, I had read two books of his poetry, and I wanted to meet the man who wrote them and was the first person named poet laureate for the state (his term just expired; his replacement is David Clewell). He already had a reputation as an unabashed proponent of poetry and new poets, doing countless readings and talks and school visits. And for no pay; the state did, however, cover his travel expenses.
We talked about the two books of his that I had read. He seemed absolutely thrilled with the conversation, likely because I was the sole visitor at the time but also, I think, because I knew some of his work, especially his collection of prose poems entitled Theban Traffic.
I remember my first words after I introduced myself. “Jake and Stella,” I said, referring to the two characters featured in the work. Bargen smiled and nodded. “This is going to sound odd, but reading about them –“ I hesitated while he waited patiently – “well, reading about Jake is like looking in a mirror.”
And so we talked, for a good 30 minutes. As we did, more people walked up and joined the conversation. I looked over the books he had for sale, and bought two I didn’t have. He autographed both, and for one – The Feast – he drew a picture of a fork, spoon and plate. I finally walked away, leaving behind some lively talk.
Now Bargen has published Days Like This Are Necessary: New & Selected Poems. The volume includes many I’ve previously read in Theban Traffic and The Feast, but many more I have not. Reading them all together is to gain a deep appreciation for the poet’s overall body of work.
Bargen writes about relationships – between husbands and wives, within families, and even more broadly, between cultures. I was surprised to see how much of his recent work was shaped by events in the Mideast, especially the war in Iraq and the civil war in Lebanon, and how he merges wars in the Mideast with day-to-day American life:
Machine guns inhabit the rooftops
like hungry crows.
bullets peck the library
city hall the cobble streets
To the east
mountains belch dust
as artillery fires into the city
planting the bloom of brown orchids
on the beach apartments
on the Hilton
in courtyards filled
with the shattered rosary of bricks.
People are opening their bodies
for the world to read
the print still wet and so red
it pours out a stoplight
on Broadway and Ninth
in downtown Columbia, Missouri.
I’ve stood at Broadway and Ninth in downtown Columbia, but I never imagined blood pouring from the stoplight. Bargen does more than that here, of course – he invites us to imagine small-city America as a kind of Beirut.
He also tells stories, stories of death and loss that become stories of life, as he does in “Inventories of Ruin:”
Even the crooked is straight at any one
instant, when there’s no forward
or going back, no sideways to consider,
just as the asphalt beyond making capricious
turns. How it goes on or ends without us,
as it did Friday when night sped past
the overturned Ford that clowned
somersaults over the median, tossing
those drunk on immortality to the pavement
Bargen turns the story of a car accident into a life story, the wreckage of the car coming to symbolize the wreckage of a life.
And then there’s the story of Jake and Stella, told in Theban Traffic and included here. Bargen uses the prose poem form to explain who they are and unfold a story of two people who love each other but always seem to find themselves disconnected. From “New Waves on Old Water:”
Stella travels two thousand miles to sweep up the dust of another
relative. Whole mountain ranges pass below her quicker than
dreams. She perches on the edge of a continent.
Because they cannot see each other, they cannot exchange diseases
though the distant unease is worse. Though they cannot share a
bottle of wine their separate glasses overflow with a blush of light.
there is a smeared stain in the air like a burning city. Over the
phone, he hears her say that’s the sun setting over the Pacific…
There is distance here, and even alienation, but there is also the strong sense of longing and affection. All of the Jake and Stella poems reflect this, almost clutching the contradiction of love and simultaneous separation, even when they’re together.
These are quiet poems, meant to be read in quiet. This collection is impressive, and goes far beyond any need to explain why Bargen was selected to champion poetry in his home state.
(Maureen Doallas has made Walter Bargen a subject of one of her marvelous articles, posting it on her blog, Writing Without Paper. To get an in-depth look at Bargen and his poetry, visit her blog – you’re in for a real treat.)