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A Word Like Fire
The Genius of Dick Barnes '54

By Robert Mezey

A Word like Fire: Selected Poems
By Dick Barnes '54
Professor Emeritus of English
Handsel Books, 2005 (posthumous)
141 pages * $17

I first met Dick Barnes ’54 at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, in the fall of 1975.

I was hoping for a job at Pomona College, and Dick and one of his colleagues had arranged to interview me. As far as I knew, he was simply a professor of English, a medievalist; I had no idea he was a poet, although some of his questions and comments struck me as uncommonly sharp and sophisticated. I was eventually hired, and when I arrived at the College to take up my duties, I assumed, since I had been hired as a poet, that I was the only one in the department. But soon afterwards I came across some poems of Dick’s—I no longer remember where; most likely I found a couple of his chapbooks in the department library—and I was blown away: he was not only a poet, but a masterly and original poet. (I wondered why they had hired me when they already had a poet at least as good and maybe better. Needless to say, I kept my wonderment to myself.)

I soon discovered that although Dick was certainly respected and admired in the department, he was thought of as a scholar, a medievalist, albeit widely and deeply read and equipped to teach just about any course offered. If they knew about his poetry, they did not take it seriously. Since they were a very impressive group—smart and learned, it had to be because Dick refused to play the poet and never talked much about his work, and, probably more important, because the poetry world itself had taken no notice of him. (You would have to be in on the game, aware of how incestuous and fashion-ridden and ignorant much of that world is to understand how a poet as good as Dick could be ignored.)

From time to time I sent his poems to some of my poet friends, those whose taste and judgment I particularly trusted, and without exception they—Miller Williams, Donald Justice, Timothy Murphy, Peter Everwine and David Ferry—agreed that he was something special. Ferry wrote of him, “Dick Barnes was one of the best poets we’ve had in America. Why he wasn’t better known (except to other poets) is a mystery to me. His poems hold the joy and grief of our common experience up together, to look right at them in a radiant light. He speaks the purest mother English in his poems.”

Dick was an affable, humorous, good-natured man; I never knew anyone who did not like him, and many, like me, loved him. As I say in my foreword to his book—A Word Like Fire: Selected Poems, he was a devout Christian and a Taoist—neither a common thing in colleges these days—and, rarer still, a man of great humility. In casual conversation you would never guess how wise he was, how immensely learned; he was just a good guy, a down-home guy, who’d grown up in modest circumstances in the San Bernardino Mountains and the Mojave Desert. Nor would you guess how wide and various his talents were: not only a teacher and scholar, he was an excellent translator, editor, dramatist, filmmaker and jazz musician. But first and last, he was a poet.

Unlike a great many American poets, he never seemed to strain for effect, never whored after novelty, never developed the mannerisms poets use to distinguish themselves from all the other poets. What distinguished him was, first, his truly marvelous ear. He wrote mostly free verse, which, as T. S. Eliot famously said, is not free for the poet who wants to do a good job. It is much more difficult than most poets and readers think, and Dick’s verse is always verse, not merely prose chopped up into lines, which is how one might describe the vast majority of our free verse. And he is distinguished also in the originality of his mind—he is almost never predictable. Time after time he says things you would never have expected, yet seem exactly right. And like George Herbert and Thomas Hardy, he does not care what you or any reader may think of him, and so he is always free to say the truth, which is often not the thing we most want to hear. And he is very funny, even when he is most serious. For instance, here is a little poem called “Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu.” (Chuang Tzu is the great sage who lived in the 4th century BCE, a deeply imaginative writer, and Hui Tzu was his closest friend, a logical philosopher with a wholly different cast of mind.)

Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were hundreds of years old.
They flew over Galilee. Hui Tzu said,
“There goes another country boy.”
“Country boy my ass,” said Chuang Tzu,
“you just watch him crucifly away
up to the sky.” Hui Tzu said, “You mean
crucify, not crucifly: crucify,
you asshole.” Chuang Tzu said,
“Excuse me if you are mistaken.”

Dick was a religious poet, another very uncommon thing in our poetry these days, but his faith never made him solemn or pious. Often it comes into his poem very obliquely, with all the more power for being, as it were, unplanned, almost offhand. Take this one, “Shoot Out.”

Niels Bohr noticed in westerns that at the draw
the first man to go for his gun was always killed.
The other, who waited for that, was quicker.

Was it because the first man had to decide to shoot,
while the other, just reacting, could take a short cut?
That’s what Bohr thought.

When I’d have explained by the plot: the bad guy wins
toward the middle, the good guy has to wait his turn.
That’s how you know the bad guy. He knows it too,

and gloats for a while, then loses his nerve
when he gets hints the movie is about to end.
According to the script. The Scriptures. Amen.

But what if Bohr was right? And what if the script
is lost, or not even lost, but just forgotten?
And what if the wind hones the edge of my house?

I’m comin to get you, Tex.

That sudden existential mystery at the end, that sudden and quite different voice in the last line—is it the voice of the poet? perhaps of God, or Death?—seems to me both hilarious and chilling. When you come to the title poem, “A Word Like Fire,” you will find yourself listening to a candid and intimate confession, the confession of a man who after almost dying has had a vision and is, at that moment, both terrified and full of joy, utterly at the mercy of his vision, without defenses, without subterfuge. It is one of the great devotional poems of this or any other century, but not for a second do you feel that you have been preached to. No, but you cannot turn away. The poem ends thus, referring to the vision:

I knew what it said, only it seemed incredible,
not anything you’d want to say out loud

in the world, that has its own enervating problems
with their own ineffective solutions, its detestable hopes

that are like hopes I have myself, or have had
(they come away like the nail from the quick);

is that what it’s like to be naked: nailless, eyeless.
given to visions, aflame: and what a cool breeze then

flows like neutrinos through your empty spaces.
I have felt it like clouds of them billowing through.

One of the things I love about Dick’s work is his great sympathy for other people, his continuous ability to put himself in their place and imagine what their existence must be like. Here is a little poem about a woman you might not easily feel sympathetic to, a woman of wealth, in a big ornate house in Beverly Hills, “On a Painting by David Hockney.”

Why doesn’t she object to him
revealing her that pitilessly, her
swimming pool living room
the exact slump of her shoulder
the expensive droop of her sundress
her worn anxious elegant face?
Her stuffed antelope head that looks just like her?
And he such a famous painter
all her friends would see it and
know it. “Exactly. There it is
exactly, my cunt of a life.”
In case you thought it was so easy being
a Beverly Hills housewife.

A part of this poem’s great power lies, I think, in our assumption that the poet is in accord with the painter, taking a cruel pleasure in the ugly truth (and we are not wrong to assume it for most of the poem)—an assumption of which we are swiftly disabused and, to the extent that we have enjoyed this wicked portrait, perhaps a little abashed. Or take this one—“A Child Who Is Not Likable,” another painful and unvarnished truth, but the pain lifted, in Frost’s phrase, “to a higher plane of regard”—lifted there by the plain eloquence of the verse, the rhymes so subtle you might not even notice, and by the admiration evoked by someone who does not ask for your

A child who is not likable, quite lacks
the innocent coquetries of her age and sex,

knocks things over often, demands what she can get,
does not expect to be liked, and is not likable—and yet

seldom frets, and never without calculation, sees
right through the phony kindness of adults she knows,

plays soberly upon their vanities, never pleads for mercy
nor for the love she isn’t going to get, gets

what she has, and keeps it.

If you have read much contemporary poetry, you will have realized that nobody else sounds anything like this. This is a poet who has learned how to be completely himself, without self-consciousness or self-congratulation—an uncommon thing. A good part of it is in the technical mastery and ease. As I wrote in my foreword, “I see that I keep coming back to the sound of his lines. I am reminded of Pound’s famous dictum that technique is the test of a poet’s sincerity, or, even better, Donald Justice’s line, ‘A love that masquerades as pure technique.’ But it is love—both the ground of technique and the transcending of it. Attend closely to Barnes’ verse and you will come to know his heart. His heart is pure, he tells us in one poem, and it is—we trust this voice because the rhythm doesn’t falter, the words ring true, have the sound of truth—unmistakable.”

And while I am quoting from my foreword, let me conclude by quoting my best line (which, I must confess, I stole from Bum Phillips, the great football coach). Dick Barnes, I say, “may not be in a class by himself, but it wouldn’t take long to call the roll.”

Robert Mezey is professor emeritus of English at Pomona College.

Baghdad Chase Road in July
by Dick Barnes ’54

Within the immense circle of the horizon
only the two of us on two legs
that don’t have feathers on. Hello,
horned lark. Hello, loggerhead shrike.
Hello, dove-size bird with black fan-tail
fluttering along the ground, a jackrabbit
would jump as high. And for the vast
absence of our own species,
thanks, thanks, thanks. Not that you
didn’t dig the mines and make this road
we’re on; but it’s your absence
today that earns my gratitude. Thanks too
for the monument and bronze tablet
to mark where Ragtown was, and the railroad
going down to Ludlow, so I can rejoice
they’ve already disappeared
with hardly a trace. Thank you sky
for speaking only after lightning. Hello, jackrabbit,
hello groundsquirrel, good luck raven,
I never saw you hover like that.
Thank you, rain, for flavoring our jaunt
with a hint of danger, and for the splashy mist
when you lashed the desert hills to show
what you can do when you mean business.
Thank you, other twolegged bare featherless
for sharing the jagged horizon of my life.
Thank you rainbow over the East Mojave
low to the ground so early in the afternoon:
thank you for being here with us.
©Copyright 2004
by Pomona College
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