Writing & News

A review of Stuart Barnes. Magdalena Ball on Compulsive Reader

Like to the Lark by Stuart Barnes

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball


Like to the Lark
By Stuart Barnes
Upswell Publishing
Paperback, 100 pages, Jan 2023, ISBN13: 9780645536980

Like to the Lark is a fitting follow-on to Stuart Barnes’ debut Glasshouses, which won the 2015 Thomas Shapcott award. The book is full of tight structuring and a clever use of constraints, with a wide range of references and referents, and a full range of poetic styles from sonnets to sestinas, Tritinas, duplexes, acrostics, pantoums, ghazals, prose poems and villanelles to name just a few. There are so many forms in use here that the book was almost named ‘Form & Function’. It’s a fantastic primer for anyone looking to learn more about poetic forms, however, the forms in Like to the Lark never feels constrained or overt. Instead the forms feel integral, fresh and natural to the work, making meaning through the flow of sound, repetitions in the work or rhyme schemes. In many ways the book charts a coming of age: growing up gay in a small Tasmanian town, memories of the past, rape, drug use, love and loss mingle with climate anxiety, recovery, and emotional growth. Barnes works the conjunction of old forms against these themes brilliantly, bringing in memoir, personal artefacts, and some intense experiences, grief, trauma, catharsis, love and loss into structures that play with their referents and work to the limits of the constraints to create something that is both artful and universal while remaining intimate and honest. 

The book opens with the Montreal Poetry Prize shortlisted (2020) “Off-World Ghazal” which sets the tone for the book. A ghazal is an Arabic verse form that often is used to write about love, with each of its couplets ending on the same word or phrase following a repeated rhyming word. In this case, the poem is a love song and elegy to the planet, the kind perhaps we might sing to her from a distant space ship. It’s both exuberant and sad, adoring and admonishing. Barnes makes up words “Peter Panesque” and utilises the poems own descriptors to create a post-modern referentiality, eg radif – the repeated word – in this case “World” and takhallus – the pen name used in the last couplet of the ghazal. “World” itself is a kind of pen name, perhaps for the poet, or maybe “man”, our doomed race:

Peter Panesque you gurgled, thought your
-self clever, and never grew up, World.

Thunder, lightning didn’t meet again.
In smoke your ambition went up, World.

Umpteen charges valuable as
Mar-a-Lago. Each is trumped-up, World?

Much of the book is underpinned by the poem as song. The book is set out in three sections, “Soon the Moon Will Sing”, “Wind Sings” and “A Tree Sings”, each taking us closer to the ‘World’ that opens the book. It’s as if we begin off-world and find ourselves back on world, moving in and close. The poems are sinuous and sensual, working within the many constrictions and still managing to feel so light and with strict scansion so subtle and integrated into the rhythm that you have to look closely to realise, for example, that “Persian Love Cake” is a pantoum, its rhythms varying slightly in a deliciously sensual repetition of dried rosebuds, green pistachios, almond praline and lemon icing.  Queensland flora comes in five rondelets with their trochaic tetrameter (long syllables followed by short), and song-like variation of 4 and 8 syllable lines, set against charming anemones, fruit bats, curlews, dugong dragons and estuarine crocs. There are all sorts of clever wordplays and tricks, alliterations, parataxes, ballads, tercets and triplets, a whole range of subtle and not so subtle rhyme schemes, and even several Abecedarian – poems in which the first letter of each line or stanza follows sequentially through the alphabet. You might think that these constraints would feel strained or exercise-like, and I do often find that to be the case when I read workshopped poems in these styles, but Barnes is such a master of form that the forms and meaning work together perfectly, coupling the classic forms with a sharp modernism:

Acceleration. First lesson. Don’t
be nervous-your vocal cords’ll
Construct even more. We might
duet. Grey sky-silhouetted, creased, taut.
Electrocuted like a criminal. Black
fruit bat (Pteropus Alecto). Alecto—Fury. (“Abecedarian on Tension”)

Another structure used frequently in Like to the Lark is the duplex.  A “duplex” poem, credited to poet Jericho Brown, contains couplets where the first line of the next couplet mirrors the previous line, creating an echo-effect. There are eight duplex poems in the collection and they form a scaffold for the book that seems to call to the other poems in the collection – almost as if all the poems were echoing off one another – rhyme picking up rhyme and repeated word finding its partner in a way that works a kind of magic particularly when words are similar but not the same:

Rhythm’s food. My fingers step to earth.
They put down roots. They stay and stamp their whorls.

Worms lay down routes—are stampede-air whirls.
The sun, another plantigrade, treats heat. (“Duplex”)

Flora and fauna charges the book, weaving their way like tendrils in and out of poems, anthropomorphised or given an an agency that isn’t so much human as sentient in an alien way: plants, earth, moon, tree, emu, bees, jellyfish, everything has a song, but Like To The Lark is no pastoral. The work is shot through with popish cultural references, from The Smiths to Tarantino, GRINDR, Belinda Carlyle, Kate Bush, the Beatles and The Village People mingle with domestic details like the Hills Hoist and burnt coffee grounds, that sit comfortable against academic references to Sylvia Plath, Gwen Harwood, Homer, Shakespeare and Melville. There is such exuberance in these poems – delight in language and what it’s capable of, and subversive trickery that is somehow both charmingly naughty and reverent at the same time. Like As The Lark is a rich and pleasurable book, each poem revealing its many layers on re-reading.