University of Queensland Press, 2016.
Reviewed by Alison Clifton.
Stuart Barnes’s Glasshouses is poetry set to an almost self-consciously cool soundtrack of throwback hits and B-sides by The Cure, Pulp, Suede, L7, The Stranglers, My Friend the Chocolate Cake, and Antony and the Johnsons. Throw in some late-80s Australian pop courtesy of Kylie Minogue and the Chantoozies and you have an idea of the eclectic mix-tape mash-up that was the winner of the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize.
Indeed, there are the poetic equivalent of mash-ups in the form of five centos in this collection but they are not and never could be the highlight of Barnes’s work. I still remain to be convinced of the artistic merit in smooshing together a number of lines of verse written by other poets.
That being said, when Barnes writes his own lines, the result is quite simply superb. “Black Cockatoos” (10) opens strongly:
of Poetry, black
the sun into us,
seam-rip it asunder.
This is a dazzling and deft rendering of imagery and energy that is sustained throughout the poem until the final stanza crashes into the “white sun” and destroys the “illusion” of rainbows.
Other collisions create spectacular verbal pyrotechnics in these poems as the motifs of hurricanes, cyclones, and the eye of the storm make landfall, with two tropical lows clashing over the Central Queensland coast. Barnes is a master of the recurring image.
Indeed, these often cryptic poems challenge the reader to make meaning out of them as Barnes seems to have sewn together a lyrical patchwork garment, a coat of many colours made up of slivers of fabric. Sometimes a patterned scrap will appear in various guises as a motif: snakes, birds, eyes, the moon, glasshouses, and medication all resurface at different moments.
However, just when a line will seem to talk to another snippet of verse and create a coherent conversation, the dial will be turned and the frequency switched once again. The poetry becomes increasingly tantalising as the reader tries to tease out meaning.
It is an enjoyable task. Images jump from the page like a rockstar leaping from the stage into the seething mosh pit below: from “Port Curtis Road’s End” (24), there is this strikingly-apt simile: “The inability to weep furrows the / pit of my gut like a plough” and from “Mr Gingerlocks” (68) there is the defiant urge to forsake the “antiseptic” boredom of modern life for “a barbarian who snarls into skies.”
But perhaps the most vital and virile lines in this collection belong to “10.15 Saturday Night” (27) when the poetic persona observes: “It’s immense, the fear / of gay men. The rage it creates. The sorrow. / To crash tonight’s to burn tomorrow.” This assertion forms the end of a four-line stanza and a rhyming couplet that concludes the sonnet as the penultimate stanza overflows its bounds in an aggressive act of enjambement, like a foaming torrent bursting over the sandbags.
There is rage here, yes, but it is righteous anger and it is tempered by humility and empathy. Barnes’s lines at once seethe with the fire of passion and glow with the warmth of compassion. This is powerful poetry.