In Mall Flower, poet and writer Tina Barry mixes poems and short fiction to record a life—childhood, youth, and adulthood. This artful combination of two literary forms also suggests a question: is there a difference between the two?
These 35 poems and (very) short stories—almost all are less than a page—follow in roughly chronological order. From the beginning we know that this is the story of a child in a broken family abandoned by the father. The impact is large; a five-year-old girl is left devastated and looking for answers. By the time she’s 10, she knows that the brokenness has become the normal, but that doesn’t mean she can’t yearn for what was.
What we’ll be
In Mrs. Kelly’s fifth-grade class:
the first female President
an engineer (the kind that drove a train)
twin veterinarians who liked birds
but would specialize in horses
one fashion model
I was the only hippie
I described a wedding I witnessed in a park
The bride wore a black dress:
hundreds of pleats, an embroidered
field of poppies
The groom donned denim
After the vows, the guests
tossed brown rice
I imagined the hippies’ lives
a million sunflowers
and three pink babies.
Their family nothing like mine:
One salesman long gone.
Each poem and story resonates with a kind of angry defiance (like being the only child in the class who wants to grow up to be a hippie). The defensiveness gives way to the finding and acceptance of self. It’s a journey that includes the sacred and profane and much in between.
Tina Barry’s poems have been published in such publications as Drunken Boat, Boston Literary Magazine, MadHat Lit, Lost in Thought, Inch Magazine, and The Orange Room Review, among others. She received her MFA degree from the creative writing program at Long Island University, Brooklyn.
How Barry mixes poetry and fiction is intriguing. It’s not so much that this story can’t be told without using both as it is that story is told through both. The fictional entries, like flash fiction, are short, but they could just as easily be described as prose poems. She’s comfortable using both, and likely sees both as a means to tell her story.
The family brokenness of Mall Flower is, unfortunately, all too common a story. What Tina Barry does, however, is to make the telling of it an uncommon one. It is moving and heartrending to watch this girl, this young woman, and this adult deal with a reality not of her making but which makes and remakes her.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish