Jennifer Barber’s poetry evokes rich meditations on loss, identity, and historical trauma through a vivid engagement with both the natural world and its spiritual mysteries. Rendered through crisp, breathless language, her work exhibits a mesmerizing quality of fluidity and grace.
The poet Martha Collins describes Barber’s poems as “masterful drawings… [calling] our attention to every carefully executed line. Spare, suggestive, their images speak both for and beyond the fragility of existence.”
Barber’s latest book Works On Paper is the recent winner of the Tenth Gate Prize from The Word Works. She is the author of Given Away (Kore Press, 2012) and Rigging the Wind (Kore Press, 2003), and her poems have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including the New Yorker, Harvard Review, the Missouri Review, Take Three: 3, Agni New Poet Series (Graywolf Press), and the Four Way Reader #2 (Four Way Books).
She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Heinrich Böll Cottage Residency, a St. Botolph Grant-in-Aid and a Bruce Rossley Emerging Voices Award, and received the 2008 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award. Barber also serves as both founder and current editor of the literary journal Salamander. She teaches English and Creative Writing at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts, where she is Scholar-in-Residence.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Jennifer Barber about her work and newest collection Works on Paper.
The Rumpus: Much of your poetry is absorbed by the natural world, and composed of sharp, distilled images with interiorities that often resonate with longing and wonder, even grief and alienation, as narrators wrestle with both historical traumas and present-day loss. In “A Village I Love” from Rigging the Wind, the narrator, in her depiction of a rural village, notes how “the wind takes up / whatever the mind won’t touch.” How do you utilize the presence of nature and the elementals to engender such rich, complicated sensations of being?
Jennifer Barber: We have a poster hanging up in the Suffolk University English Department that illustrates the J.D. Salinger quote, “Poets are always taking the weather so personally.” I confess to taking not only the weather but other elements of the natural world very personally. Whether that’s a form of solipsism, or to see it the opposite way around, a result of having permeable borders so that the natural world leaks right in, would be hard to say. I can’t imagine not being heavily influenced by the seasons, by the presence of birds (even if they are common sparrows and crows and blue jays), and by trees. I tend to walk around with my neck craned up in order to get a good view of what’s going on in their crowns. Somehow it seems important to know.
A few years back, I was walking home from the train one cold March evening and noticed something that had never struck me before, the number of empty nests high up in the branches. On the verge of being an empty nester myself (my youngest leaves for college next fall), I felt this strange and overwhelming bond with the real empty nests. I had the urge to know what it might feel like to be a nest, to wait around in the frigid March air to see if there would be any returnees, to realize that, having once been at the center of things, the site of hatching eggs and then the hungry cries of the baby birds, you were now at risk of irrelevance and abandonment. Nothing but human projection onto an assemblage of twigs, of course, but it’s the way I tend to think.
I’ve lived mostly in or near cities, but I wrote “A Village I Love” about San Miguel de Reinante in Galicia, Spain, where my husband and I lived for several months way back in the 1980s. San Miguel at that time was a shrinking town, largely inhabited by older people. The young people had moved away. It was very traditional. The widows wore black for years after the death of their spouses, and many of the residents grew their own potatoes, lettuces, and beans. Others kept cows. In that region, there was no way to ignore the wind that would arrive with incredible force and blow for three or four days at a time. The wind had a moaning howl to it that reached into the furthest recesses of the head, and though the people in San Miguel had known it all their lives, it still affected everyone. To me it was a kind of representation of all that went unsaid in the village, especially in the long aftermath of the Spanish Civil War.
Rumpus: I love the idea of writers having this heightened sensitivity, these “permeable borders,” as you describe it, in engaging with and interpreting the natural world. The poet Jane Miller also noted how the use of the natural in Rigging the Wind evoked “landscapes haunted by human suffering,” as many of the poems in this collection transport readers to Spain in the aftermath of civil war, or during the violence of its medieval times. The Inquisition is revisited again in Given Away, where poems reimagine the terror and uncertainty of those Sephardic Jews forced to convert upon threat of death or expulsion. In Works on Paper, the narrator of the poem “Judenplatz” asks, after visiting a deserted memorial of the former Jewish ghetto, “How are the same / apartment buildings where they were? / How is it that Vienna is / Vienna, waking in this light?” What draws you to these larger meditations on historical trauma, where time so often becomes a fluid construct, inviting the contemporary to walk among the past?
Barber: I’m drawn to meditate on historical trauma partly by the simple fact that the places where such sufferings occurred are still there. It seems almost impossible that they would be, but they are, and so walking through the past metaphorically is also a literal walking, as in the case of “Judenplatz,” the same buildings that saw the arrival of the Nazi era surround the same square. The only change is a memorial at its center for those who perished.
Even hundreds of years later, some features of the cities in Spain where the Sephardic Jews flourished remain, the shell of a synagogue, since converted into a museum, or five or six side streets of a neighborhood that was once a Jewish quarter. I suppose that in approaching these historical cataclysms, I’m also hoping to gain a better understanding of them. However, a better understanding often eludes me, and I’m left more with a depiction of a moment or series of moments within the larger event.
Rumpus: In depicting these moments through poetry do you find yourself rearticulating a trauma narrative through art? I’m interested in the means by which writers address collective trauma and its inheritance.
Barber: I tend to portray historical trauma through the experience of a single individual. In Rigging the Wind, I drew on fragments of Inquisition documents and first-person accounts recovered from diaries after the Expulsion to explore those particular lives. In the poem “Lucena” from Given Away, I used words reportedly spoken by a rabbi in 1148 after the invasion of the city of Lucena by the Almohads. The words were the central point around which I arranged the other descriptions. In Works on Paper, the poem “Past the Gates of the City” conveys a collective experience, but it is about a religious gathering rather than a traumatic event.
Rumpus: The question of identity is often found at the heart of your work. In an interview with Jen Garfield for Prick of the Spindle, you discuss how writing poetry has served as a means to recover a “self [that] was very submerged and very lost,” along with a more intimate understanding of your Jewish identity. Yet your poems also reveal the struggle involved. For instance, in “Travels in Place” from Rigging the Wind, the narrator, after deliberating on the various and far-reaching possibilities of her origin, states that “Maybe blood is a fiction.” Can language offer us a way to stabilize our identity?
Barber: I do think that language can offer us a way to stabilize our identity, but only temporarily, say within the confines of a particular poem, as part of a specific formulation. The minute the formulation has been completed, doubts and ifs and maybes creep in, so that the whole issue has to be reexamined, re-thought. Because we’re constantly changing in small ways, based on each new fragment of experience, each new person or place that we develop a connection to, I can’t see identity as a badge to wear or a straightforward classification of anything. And yet if we shun the whole idea of identity, how do we make sense of what we are, and how do we approach the lives of those who have come before?
So many questions arise from the very concept of identity. Is it a means of separating ourselves from some groups of people and allying ourselves with others? How does it affect an individual connection between people of very different backgrounds? Does the imagination allow us to at least partially penetrate the lives of others, or is that thought the height of presumption? When we read a literary work, are we carried away to the point where we see an author or a character’s identity as part of our own, or do we mainly feel the distance between what we’ve lived and what others have lived?
In “Travels in Place,” I wanted to hint at some of these questions. When I wrote “maybe blood is a fiction” the aim was to give myself a little reality check. My ancestors were Ashkenazi Jews, and in Rigging the Wind, I’d written only about Sephardic Jews. I’ve spent most of my life in New England, not in Eastern Europe, not in Spain. I grew up without any exposure to Jewish religious traditions. My husband, Peter Brown, is Irish Catholic, and we adopted our daughter Zoe from Korea. So why would I want or need to delve into earlier eras, to see myself as coming from a long line of Jewish ancestors? Yet of course we all wonder about what our forbears contributed to who we are. We all need some sense of who we are in order to have enough confidence to engage with others.
Rumpus: Your latest collection Works on Paper contains poems absorbed with surviving both personal illness and the demise of someone beloved. Poems echo one another in the wake of trauma, offering transcendence through grief, as in “After,” where the narrator lies in the grass, “holding the broken shoulder of a breeze. / You’re beside me in the dark. / My finger loses itself in the open wound of you.” How did you approach this material with such tender clarity, without descending into sentimentality?
Barber: My father’s year-long illness and then his death in 2014 is the subject of several poems in Works on Paper. I feel like I’m still in the process of coming to terms with both his dying and his death. I am still writing about both. I’m glad that you see tenderness in the poems. My father and I developed a greater closeness during his illness, and perhaps that is reflected in the shape that the poems eventually took. It was difficult to experience that closeness while knowing his life would soon be over. At the same time, I’m very grateful for it, grateful that I lived close by and was able to be there, grateful that he was open to accepting my presence as he struggled. His way of facing death, which he wasn’t resigned to, and wasn’t ready for, yet managed to countenance day after day, is something that I marvel at. There was no possibility of mitigating what was about to happen, yet he continued to see his family and friends, continued his interest in all that was going on around him, up to the very end. Even on the days when he felt tremendous despair, he didn’t cut himself off from others.
Rumpus: Were many of the poems from Works on Paper conceived of during this difficult time? When did this collection begin to take shape?
Barber: Yes, many poems were conceived during that time. I had gathered some poems in the years prior, but I hadn’t yet begun thinking of them as a collection. That came later, toward the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015. We had that snowy Boston winter last winter, which meant university cancellations, and some extra hours at home to write and rewrite and start to shape a manuscript.
Rumpus: Several poems from Works on Paper take their titles from composer Jeffrey Arlo Brown’s experimental Motion Harmony series. Movement in these poems, such as a father seahorse releasing hatchlings or pears riddled with wasps, is often vivid and unexpected, much like Brown’s music. What inspired these poems?
Barber: Jeff is my son, and it’s been exciting to watch him develop as a young composer, experimenting with, among other things, kinetic sculpture and the Doppler Effect. In addition to the music itself, I love the titles he gives his works, which manage to be both matter-of-fact and mysterious, so I borrowed a few of them in the hopes of giving myself permission to go places I might not have gone otherwise. In “Motion Harmony #1,” I wanted to be able to jump from an autumn rain, to Sappho, to the moon, to a pair of lovers, without explaining the links between them. In “Motion Harmony #2,” I began with the exterior world but quickly traveled inward, and then attempted to merge outer and inner at the poem’s end, through the image of the wasp-riddled pear and the idea of a tunneled heart. “Motion Harmony #3” might be the wild card. I’m not sure why I happened to be reading about the mating and birthing habits of sea horses, but I found their life cycle completely fascinating, from the flirtatious water dance they perform to their unusually equitable way of gestating their young. Finally, in “Motion Harmony #4,” I wanted to return to autumn and the moon, conveying a sense of a harvest that has been completed and the idea of encroaching darkness, the imminence of winter.
Rumpus: There is a definite sense of play in such an approach. Does it depart much from your usual style in writing poetry?
Barber: I spend a lot of time shifting things around in a poem, trying to fit the pieces together or invent a piece that’s missing, and that’s play of a kind. But in the “Motion Harmony” poems and a few others in Works on Paper, I felt as if I were giving the puzzle pieces a good shake instead of carefully laying them out. In “Five Starts,” which consists of five beginnings to nonexistent poems, I must have tried the separate pieces in every possible sequence, every possible combination. In “Trope,” I decided to go forward with a strange image, morning coming into view like an egg emerging from a hen, and see if I could add others as strange, without wondering what any of it might mean.
Rumpus: The order of poems in Works on Paper also intrigued me. For instance, I couldn’t help but consider “Reading Taha Muhammad Ali,” and “From Hebrew Prayers Made Easy,” in conversation with one another. The narrator of the first poem questions the translation and workings of a qasida in relation to the Palestinian poet’s sense of grief. In “From Hebrew Prayers Made Easy,” the abstraction of form is again considered, as the poem is composed entirely of phrases taken from a Hebrew primer. This dislocates the reader’s immediate sense of meaning. How did you approach the juxtaposition of such poems in relation to one another for this collection?
Barber: I shuffled the order of the poems many times, and in the final shuffling, “Reading Taha Muhammad Ali” and “From Hebrew Prayers Made Easy” ended up on facing pages. Although I wasn’t initially thinking about them in conversation with each other, the fact of their proximity does lead to some questions. In “Reading Taha Muhammad Ali,” I refer to a poem of his that talks about not only the loss of young love but the loss of the whole setting of his childhood, the town of Saffuriya. His poetry is wide-ranging, but the displacement of the Palestinians is naturally an important element of it. In “Hebrew Prayers” there is also, I believe, a sense of longing for a place, longing for continuity, on the part of a much-dispersed people. Maybe it comes back to identity. What role is played by ancient history, what role by modern history? What can a poem convey? What is the way forward?
Rumpus: Do you find such questions play a role in your current work? What literary projects are you focusing on now?
Barber: I do find that such questions play a role in my current work, those questions, and many others, all of them ultimately unanswerable, appearing, then receding, and reappearing in new guises. As for other literary projects, I’ve been translating a 2012 book of poetry called Ici en exil by Grenoble-based writer Emmanuel Merle, which I hope to complete in the next months. Translation is at once a humbling and exciting process, and I’d like to do more of it in the future.