The great trick of Walter Bargen’s poetry reveals itself early and often in his latest book, “You Wounded Miracle.”
Bargen, the state’s first poet laureate, threads seemingly ageless wisdom through his work. This sort of knowing is rooted in the earth and all its elements, and exchanged between generations.
And yet, Bargen often sounds as if he’s making it all up as he goes. The poet’s approachability, askew humor and perpetual sense of surprise twine with more expansive truths to create truly lifelike verses.
Bargen, like so many of us, acknowledges his place in a longer story. But its plot, characters and inevitable conclusion are still up for grabs.
“You Wounded Miracle” arrives via the German press LILIOM Verlag and pairs Bargen’s poems with a wide variety of photographs. Bargen’s body of work seeks the language of connection; it gropes for, and so often finds, words that tether man to nature, humans to one another, birth and death to every day that falls between.
Bargen teases out those connections immediately in opening poem “List Beyond the Stars.” He asks after the absence of snakes and turtles, of oak trees losing “their leaves three months early” and “the alphabet missing so many species.” As nature closes in on itself, a sort of makeshift defense against what people do, Bargen mourns the losses he knows — and the ones to come.
“I don’t know what will survive,” he writes. “I try not to look closely anymore. / It’s already possible to count solitary blades of grass. / My heart beats with the most distant stars. / Walt Whitman democracy is withering.”
A few pages later, in “Kansas,” nature’s ephemera becomes a way to understand the connections we’re always making and breaking: “It’s the briefest reprieve / from drought, this coming together, / a brush of mist as fingertips alight, / light as the lightest rain, the touch of lips / that moisten each other.”
The poet thrives within the language of collisions and contrasts — push and pull, storm and sun, light and dark. In “Double-Yoked,” he strings together a series of gorgeous images:
“Rain dissolves the bedroom windows”
“Glass puddles and glistens over / the deck”
“… Dawn smeared across the horizon, / through the trees”
“Light falls and no one bends to pick it up,” Bargen writes in the timely “Winter Solstice.” “It will take weeks for the realization to hit / home, then of course, it’s too late.”
But Bargen is at his best and, appropriately, his most fragile when writing about the human element. Bargen always proves fluent with the body, with its rhythms and failures, with the way it’s always bending toward death.
In “Edges,” he compares human existence to any number of indelicate implements: tires which kiss potholes roughly; the pen a frustrated writer uses to inflict a new wound; “the woman who walked / through the plate-glass door / without opening it”; “the mangled knuckles of a father / who beat another father to death / during their son’s hockey game.”
“Sanctum” visits its subject in confinement; the setting might be a prison, a psych ward, four walls of one’s own making. Bargen writes of life on the inside in a way that’s stark and serrated: “An open drain in the middle of the floor / for the only part of you allowed to leave.”
“Expense Account” offers a sad-eyed yet reverent description of aging: “The old man upstairs, / and his feet so creak. / His toes are nothing but splinters. / His worry is older / than the pine boards he paces./ Some day he will walk / right into the grain.”
A completely different angle on living and dying comes through in “Double-chambered Conversation”; Bargen’s waiting-room narrator makes the gestures of someone quietly waiting for a relative to die. Tilting the frame on its axis, he instead recounts the history and uncertain future of a once-reliable car.
Bargen lands more than a few knockout punches, last lines that send the reader away from the page staggering and starry-eyed. Quoting them seems unfair, like a digression into the land of spoilers; and yet, the true power of these lines is compounded by every preceding word.
“I can’t tell the difference / between the spin cycle and drowning, / they drip with the same indignation,” Bargen writes at the end of “Laundry Day.”
“Bucket Music,” the poet’s accounting of trapping a rattlesnake, ends with a masterful, ominous coda, the glory and danger of the creature announcing itself:
“It was the sound / of a rain stick, but more a downpour than a gentle drizzle. / Driving farr into the wildlife refuge, the unbroken warning / flooded the car.”
In contrast, the opening of a poem like “Every Face Has a Fire” prepares the body and soul for a reckoning. Bargen deploys the title phrase at the end of a list of desperate conditions:
“Before anyone starts running, before anyone shouts a warning or sings in pain, / before speech is shocked into recognition, / before the sirens come wailing and the crowds gather to tell their visions …”
Perhaps the strongest opening salvo in the collection comes at the top of “Emergency Room”: “One entrance requires / walking on your lips. / Another imposes silence / as darkness pours from your ears / drenching your flannel shirt.”
The photographs within the collection, most of which are quite beautiful, both add and subtract from the words they frame. The image of a spiral sculpture perfectly pairs with the book’s very last lines: “Where do we turn? Where do we turn? Into the turning” (“A Line From Dogen”). A hazy scene from the Pacific Northwest seems like the right spiritual companion for “Emergency Room.”
In other instances, images muddle, or even seem to argue with, the mental picture a poem evokes.
Bargen’s work is, as ever, rich and rough. The poet remains true to himself and his history of words, while developing themes in welcome, sometimes heartbreaking ways.
A poem like “Stones,” somehow both violent and meditative, encourages readers that Bargen will continue the good labor of reconciliation; brokering an uneasy peace between hardship and simple joy, observation and unknowing.
“These are loud voices, the stones telling us / Our stories,” he writes in that poem’s final stanza. “These are the hard voices telling us / that we are not finished throwing stones.”