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Poetry in a Disconnected and Imperilled World:
Adèle Barclay's If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You

Adèle Barclay, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You
Gibsons, BC. Nightwood Editions, 2016.

“Family is a crawlspace,” says the speaker of the poem “Debtless,” “storing waterlogged paperbacks, / a cheap bottle of brandy in a filing cabinet” (86). These lines—metaphorically rich and balanced with detail and ambiguity—are representative of Adèle Barclay’s assured debut, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You. There is suggestive power with “crawlspace;” a crawlspace is a dark space—what does that darkness portend? “Paperbacks” hint at family stories, but check out that adjective, “waterlogged.” The word contributes to a captivating rhythm, in which the “-logged” part functions sonically like a gulp by forcing a slight pause before moving on. Things do not become waterlogged on their own—waterlogging occurs by accident or natural disaster. These connotations arise in part from following the “show, don’t tell” maxim; they brilliantly suggest a narrative not constricted by telling, but also one that goes beyond showing, allowing room for a reader’s own experiences. Although the occasional poem feels a bit too much like a jumble of images and ideas, again and again, Barclay is able to find the right words and put them in the right order.

As I read, I was fascinated with what, at first glance, seem to be long poems in disguise; instead of appearing in consecutive fashion, these poems are broken up and dispersed throughout the book. The first of these is the “Dear Sara” poem(s), sequentially numbered I-VI, one part leading off the book’s five sections, as well as closing the collection. The second is the “Aubade” poem(s), which are also sequentially numbered, one appearing in each of the first four sections, seemingly at random. Both give the collection a sense of continuity, providing a connective thread throughout the book.

“Dear Sara I” opens the collection with these lines: “Bees are dying and it’s not even winter. / What’s left of the summer hive will fall / in love with you again.” The broad theme of these poems is relationships, beginning here with the surprising and disorienting turn at the second line break as the tone shifts from an anxious statement about environmental devastation to a more personal one. It is possible that they did not begin life as one longer piece, but I think the last lines of “Dear Sara VI” hint that my reading is plausible: “Sara, / I can’t close the circle / without you.” These lines might seem sentimental when quoted out of context, but they have just the right amount of vulnerability, coming as they do soon after some tough talk from the speaker: “I can tell when people / talk shit / and when my lovers cheat / but that’s about it.” The fragmentation and dispersal of this sort-of-long-poem contributes to an overall feeling of living in a disconnected and imperilled world, where relationships are endangered much like the bees at the beginning of the collection.


Ian LeTourneau lives in Fredericton NB with his wife and son. He is currently serving a two-year term as Cultural Laureate of Fredericton. He’s the author of Defining Range (Gaspereau Press, 2006) and Terminal Moraine (Thistledown, 2008). A new chapbook, Core Sample, appears this fall from Frog Hollow Press.