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The Hero in the Jaws of the Serpent:
John Wall Barger's The Mean Game

John Wall Barger's The Mean Game
John Wall Barger, The Mean Game
Windsor: Palimpsest Press, 2019.

John Wall Barger’s work has always been lyrical and inventive. His latest, The Mean Game, builds on these strengths, delivering an evocative and challenging book. Perhaps a little less straightforward than his previous publications, the poems in The Mean Game perform more dramatically, more surreally, and more vividly than ever before.

To further clarify my understanding of the text and the author, I enrolled in his Montreal poetry workshop Fable and Fabulation. He and co-leader Stephanie Yorke took the time to guide the audience through writing prompts, involving a quasi-philosophical approach of treating everything from life to death as a portal or passageway of sorts. There is certainly a Jungian undertone to his new verse, as though death itself were a myth—so why not life and poetry, too?

His poems odyssey through Scandinavian and Hindu mythologies, interspersed with such imagery as “a Manhattan-sized / chandelier shimmering” (“A Scorneful Image”). He even evokes both Ezekiel and Darth Vader in one poem, “The External Lung.”. Beyond the pages, this poetics of the mind really lends itself to dramatization, and the reading he gave following the workshop was equally intimate and enrapturing.

Heady yet uncouth, there is a touch of the eschatological in his works, as well. In his poem “I am a Cell,” for example, he describes a Plato’s cave type existence akin to a psychedelic trip, where he is a cell and the world not only overwhelms but swallows him. Later in the poem, on a mountain symbolizing wisdom and isolation, he and his unnamed bride perceive that “From the amphitheater / of mountains / Death steps out / like a traveler.” He lets go of her hand and narrates this as perhaps a passageway between living and lived experience, ending with his first-grade teacher whispering through memory “Don’t go out / in the snow / without your jacket.”

At any given moment in John Wall Barger’s poetic process there are many rotating levels of creative energy. “I am a Cell” fluctuates between narration of childhood and adulthood, bigness and smallness, togetherness and isolation, corporeal and ephemeral, life and death, inside and outside, altitude and levelness, presence and present tense. The nucleus of his work is quantum but the exterior so complex, there is beauty in his near scientific demeanour (as in “Chernobyl” and “The Problem with Love”) in describing fantastical scenes and fleeting surrealist narrative arcs from poem to poem throughout the collection.

Between metempsychosis and apocatastasis, John Wall Barger embodies poiesis, poetic license. His chief textual influences seem to correspond with Don McKay (whom he acknowledges from his time spent at Banff Writing Studio) and Kevin Spenst (whose Joycean affinities seem obvious, even if there’s no real relation). Sure, there’s grittiness and lyricism in Barger, but I would venture further than that to say there’s a faintly glowing hope deep within the heart of his writing, possibly best expressed by his choice Louise Glück epigraph: “The master said You must write what you see. / But what I see does not move me. / The master answered Change what you see.

 

Jay Miller is a poet and translator. He lives in Montreal.

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