In her essay “Dynamic Design: The Structure of Books of Poems,” Natasha Sajé stresses the importance of gesture and the necessity for a book of poems to open in a way that “seize[s] the reader’s attention… signaling the book as the new thing that it is.”
Tina Barr’s Green Target, winner of the 2018 Barrow Street Prize and the North Carolina Poetry Society’s Brockman-Campbell Award, opens with such a gesture: an arresting cover image of a toy tank plunked down in the midst of dense forest foliage. The juxtaposition is startling in its incongruity, a hint of man-made chaos disturbing an otherwise untouched landscape. More significantly, the book’s cover serves as an apt representation of Green Target’s many themes, an appropriate gesture with which to open Barr’s third full-length collection.
Like the tank in the forest, Barr’s speaker is somewhat of an alien object herself, a big city person who’s relocated to a rural locale that is far from bucolic. The book opens with the crash-bang of an automobile accident in which the driver of a Nissan, a man named Harney,
going a hundred, slammed
a Mazda; pieces of cars
flew into the windows of Home
Hardware, slid and banged three
It’s a moment that’s typical of small towns where a catastrophic event promises to shatter time into “before” and “after.” The driver of the Mazda, a track coach and runner himself, is rendered paraplegic. Like the great horse Secretariat, whose career was ended by laminitis, “He’ll never run again.” That a man is grounded by circumstance, a freak accident of wrong place/wrong time, is a theme that spins out over the course of the book. Children drown; an opossum attempting to cross a road is flattened by a car. Such are the cruelties, the vagaries of nature.
It was Wordsworth who first suggested that poetry could be inspired by nature, that a writer could immerse herself in the natural world and, by paying close attention, arrive at a kind of verse that “takes its origins recollected in tranquility.” Barr’s speaker is an impeccable observer of the natural world, but she is hardly tranquil, especially in the first fraught months of rural life. “One worries in the mountains,” she says. Barr’s landscapes are violent with life, redolent with nature’s teem and seethe: the goldenrod “seeds our heads with bites from some / insect” while brambles’ thorns “scrape / bar pins of blood on my forearms.” Snakes lurk everywhere—in the grass near walking paths or twined inside of the compost bin: Garter snakes, black and harmless, and copperheads, beautiful and lethal, even in death when its “jaws kept / opening like a Venus Flytrap’s mouth.” Nature here is its own speeding automobile—it’s best to always look both ways and be mindful of where one treads.
What is familiar to the locals becomes exotic, even grotesque, from the vantage point of the speaker. The poem “Agricultural Fair,” located in that familiar institution of rural places, describes a circular track on which four piglets race “towards a pile of neon Cheetos.” In another barn, infant calves lay “collapsed” in the hay: “we hoped their mother knew not to step / near their flicked-back ears, their sloe-eyed wonder,” an image that summons a poignant memory of the speaker’s own mother who, at life’s end, “lay content, as if in hay.” Like the calves, the mother is helpless, an infant dependent on her daughters for her care. The speaker is advised by her sister to “just put her in a diaper / …and tell her not to get out of bed.” It’s advice the speaker ignores when she opts to wake from sleep and guide her mother to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Here, nature is cyclical, the natural order inverted with the adult child assuming the role of mother.
Luckily, the speaker is guided through the seasons in this strange land by a local named Farley, a man who is so at home in the natural world that when he “sits in woods… chipmunks / run over his thighs.” In the course of the book, Farley is a font of helpful and wise advice for the speaker, such as don’t cut and store green hay in the summertime unless you want to set the barn on fire. He can read the sky at night and predict the weather and scan the ground for clues as to what animal has been feasting on the ripe peaches (answer: bears). He arrives early on in the book like a twenty-first century knight in shining armor. While there are no dragons to slay, there are plenty of snakes, including a poisonous copperhead:
Farley twirled it up
like a marshmallow blistering from fire,
pulled clippers from his back pocket,
snipped its head, whose jaws kept
opening like a Venus Flytrap’s mouth.
Only good snake is a dead snake, Farley remarks.
The titular “target” originates from a series of Jasper Johns paintings, but the resulting poems are less purely ekphrastic and more an emotional entrée into the ways humans have targeted the natural world through both commission and omission. The poem “Green Target, Jasper Johns, 1955,” starts with the speaker’s meditation on the title painting, but becomes a reverie on the shades of green to be found in a nearby valley: “chartreuse, lime, darken to olive, moss, juniper / pine at the highest elevation.” But here, too, nature is threatened. Its beauty savaged by humans whose industrial pollutants have created a rain so acidic that each downpour “tears / open avalanches the width of cars, collapses roads.”
The target is often human, too, and female. In the poem “At a Bar Called Mamzelle,” after Johns’s Painting Bitten by a Man, 1961, the speaker recalls an incident from her previous life when her lover was a woman with “Long legs, a basketball player / with makeup on.” They’re walking together along a Philadelphia street when some guys mutter “dykes”:
my first lesson in being
an object not for men,
another kind of target.
The book’s trajectory moves through the seasons, but it’s less an arc circumscribed by chronology than a series of moods and tones evoked through imagery. Barr is an astonishing image-maker, adept in creating significance through anthimeria: Following a train/truck accident, “cop cars beetled up and down the road” while “oranges bowled all along the railroad.” Upon lifting the lid of the compost bin in “Green,” the “heat swells toward me,” an image that evokes the evils unleashed from Pandora’s box as well as viscerally capturing the monstrous nature of a Southern summer. Heat is pervasive and constant in Barr’s imagery, a nod perhaps to climate change and its ongoing threat.
In the course of the seasons, the speaker eventually reconciles herself to this strange place in which she’s chosen to live. By the final section, she’s killing her own snakes and “throw[s] them into locust / and they drape the branches.” Logs and rebar have secured a portion of the cliff where the rain eroded a car-sized section of earth from the mountain. Juniper that the speaker has planted is growing there along with “daisy, blackberry, / maple saplings.” During a walk, an approaching scorpion that “felt my shadow, but kept coming / raising its pincers” evokes a ritual she’s learned when approached by a passing car:
I look for a gesture,
fingers lifted off a wheel, or raised,
an open palm. It’s instinctive: when a
stranger waves, he can’t hold a weapon.
The poem goes on to recall a friend from the speaker’s previous life, one whose life list included “money,” “career,” “power”:
At the bottom were my words,
an hourglass turned upside down: “love,”
Ultimately, she has found both here in this once-alien place that she now calls home.