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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

POET OF THE WEEK: KATHERINE RUSSELL BARNES


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I can't think of a better poet to lead the way into April, National Poetry Month than Katherine Russell Barnes. I met her a year ago during my visit to Wilson; she and her daughter Rebecca, with friends, took me to a fabulous restaurant outside town. There we talked poetry and even wrote a collaborative renga before the meal was done. "Katie" Barnes knows well the profundity of her book’s title, Treading Water, which was publish this year by Old Mountain Press and is well worth celebrating. Barnes has been a poet all of her long life and she knows what writing a poem is like, what living a life means, and how the two intersect in ways that nobody, least of all the poet, can predict. She brings to her poetry wit, craft, pathos, and all the thousand and one pleasures that language can offer. “Lips bright as birthday balloons’"? Yes, they are here. Keen observations of youth and old age. Memories that never descend into bathos or cliche. The poet treads water, the water of language and what the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke called the “heaviness” of life. But in the distance she hears what the earth sings, as in “Rest Homes, where “machines the size of dinasaurs/dug into ant hills, snake holes,/rabbit burrows,/Indian mounds” to make these domiciles for the elderly. The spirit of place still sings, despite the degradation visited upon it, even if the song is a dirge. “Tonight,” she tells us...for the poet is always pulling us back to this moment to LISTEN--”tonight wind keens through the tall pines.



When Treading Water appeared, Katie Barnes was honored with a reading/signing in Wilson.



(Katherine Russell Barnes at the lectern with her daughter Rebecca Tighe, to whom her new book is dedicated.)


Here are some of my favorite poems from TREADING WATER.


LIGHT DEPRIVATION


He sleeps quietly beside me.

I want to go back to the garden,
but it is past midnight and no light.
Not even a snippet of moon.

I want to force up weeds settled
beside jeweled flowers, finish
the task begun in full sun.

Bleeding hearts must be saved
from encroaching knotweed. Trailing phlox
and verbena are already smothered by Oxalis.

Its delicate leaf and stem mask
a tenacious root-knob that rebounds and thrives
from merest fragment left behind.

Lying here in the dark, I picture
his imposing face, unmarked by a tragedy
he cannot know or name.

I imagine his brain, a bulb in soft earth.
Its twining roots search, but cannot connect,
cannot bring forth.

I lie knotted in distress,
unwilling to abandon bright years
to darkness.

When morning comes, I tell him I must go
weed the garden.
His answer affirms his failing mind,

but lights my blighted heart.
“Weeds?“ he asks. “Weeds?
I remember only flowers.”



(Katie signing books for friends and admirers in the Wilson community.)

HARD TIMES COME WHITE


White as the lightning
that burned down the barn
and charred his voice
into a rasp.

White as the sun-glare
that beats off the tin tub
where Mama scrubs white clothes
then dark, and wonders how
she'll ever get them hung
on the rickety line strung
between the corner of the shed
and one white board
propped up with bricks
and cinder blocks.

But that's not the worst of white.
The baby lies still and white.
No longer pink with fever.
White against the dirty rag quilt.
Mama's face is white when I yell,
"The baby ain't breathin' no more.
I think she's dead."

My mind runs white.

In the field near the woods
where blackberry blooms hang white,
his hoe rises, falls
in sun-baked clay as he replants
the early corn.

POEMS LEAVE HIM COLD


If I should keel over while sitting here
straining for right words in this secluded place,
this office space, no one on either side
to hear or care,

If I should fall in what my husband calls
my play-all-day-hide-away,
lie stiff as a door peg, silent as the unplugged
telephone, would I be found eventually?

He has a key and cruises by occasionally.
I don't know why unless he needs to summon me
because the food is down to molded cheese
from last week’s poker game.

Would he try to explain when neighbors
bring their finest casseroles and ask why
his wife was dead for days before he found her?
Would he stop chewing long enough to say,

"Wish she could answer that.
Words were her bag.”



(Katie Barnes visits with her friend Julie at the reception in honor of her new book.)

STILL LIFE


They sit on their never-painted porch,
four ladies, eighty years old, or more.
Clouded eyes peer from gingham bonnets.
Hands cup ears that no longer hear
the wooden rockers' rhythm.

Long together, yet alone,
they ramble, clamor, drone. compare patchwork memories and judge
each visitor a prize
to be won and held.

A car shoots by on the new-paved road.
A jet streaks toward the lowering sun.

REST HOMES


In the field across the road,
they have built homes for the elderly.

Machines the size of dinosaurs
dug into ant hills, snake holes,
rabbit burrows, Indian mounds

Degrading the land where season after season
plow had unearthed shards of pots and pipes,
remains of roving native tribes.

In those days, flint-gleam of arrowheads
rose and fell as soil turned, turned
in the shadow of sapling pines.

Tonight, a waning moon rises, casts
pale light on secure, squat houses
that lodge today's restless people.

And wind keens through the tall pines.




POET-SPEAK


“The poet has no authority,”
he said, then repeated it.
He shook his shaggy white mane
and said it yet again,
“He has no authority.”

A lady in a crooked hat,
seated in the audience,
raised her hand and looked aghast.
“Sir, on whose authority
do you say that?” she asked.

BIOGRAPHY:

Katherine Russell Barnes lives in Wilson, North Carolina. She is a retired nurse, a wife, mother and grandmother, who had been writing poetry for three decades. Her poems have been published in Crucible, Pembroke, Dragonfly, The Lyric and many other literary magazines. Her poems are included in numerous anthologies--- Weymouth, Here’s to the Land by the NC Poetry Society, Poets for Peace, published by Chapel Hill Press and most recently many thematic anthologies by Old Mountain Press.

She is particularly proud that her poems appear in the anthology Earth and Soul. This was a joint literary venture with a Russian press in which poems were printed on facing pages in both Russian and English. The resulting books were distributed throughout Russia in schools and libraries.

She has been a member of many literary organizations in North Carolina such as the NC Poetry Society, the Poetry Council of NC, and the NC Writers' Network and is a charter member of the NC Haiku Society. Her involvement in these organizations includes holding offices, leading workshops, and judging contests in the hope of advancing poetry and its appreciation throughout the state.

4 comments:

Bill Griffin said...

Katie -- great to see you here and read these wonderful poems! I don't recall you reading any of these at our Poetry Society meetings -- the narratives really grab me and your images bring each line to life so wonderfully. Hope to hear you read in person again soon . . .

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Bill, thanks for dropping by. I've added a few more photos since your visit. Come back again!

Glenda C. Beall said...

Katie's poems touch me and make me want to read more of her work. I'll look for her book and her poems in anthologies.
Thanks, Kathryn, for introducing Katie to us.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

You're very welcome, Glenda. I'll post the info. for ordering Katie's book.