A review of Walter Bargen's Too Quick for the Living
In his newest poetry collection Too Quick for the Living, Walter Bargen crafts poetry that looks into the jaws of American life, and asks: how do you live when you can’t live in the moment? This is subtle mind, you, Bargen isn’t beating drums, or preaching, rather Bargen illustrates for us an anxious aging America, landlocked in the center of the country, if not literally, certainly spiritually. Time is passing. Opportunities turn into regret, loss, and depression. Some of these poems are warnings, some of these poems are elegies, and some of these poems celebrate joy and wisdom of quotidian pleasures. Too Quick for the Living is balanced, like a trusty pocket knife, compact, well oiled, and sharp.
Bargen’s music and imagery that create the emotional landscape of a singular poem, echo and resonate throughout the collection; the collection’s tone and idiom are even and consistent. The book covers microcosms of people’s lives and also remains personal. Even when Bargen is writing about the serial killers of Kansas, he’s writing about himself, if only a wee bit. Bargen’s a poet who can project into the subject, wear the subject like a jacket. And because Bargn can do this effortlessly, the reader comes along for the ride. Overall, the book shimmers with memory, history, and poetic glamor. Bargen knows life is over before it begins, that our illusory day to day life is a sensuous daydream from which we awake from far to late. It’s even reflected in the cover art, a field of sunflowers, their faces already drooping in front of the roadside billboard. By the time you see them, they are dead, and returning to seed, the fields in the background starkly angled, manicured, already wild at the seams from the last mow.
The opening poem “Ascending the Mountain Slowly” frames the collection thematically and stylistically. “The first line of the letter forgotten as I sit down to respond./The telephone rings.” Bargen opens with irony, the folly and magic of communication and time. It’s a curious, dreamy poem where cicadas made noise outside, and “Someone needs/ dried flowers for a vase far away....She wants what’s left. Her room is all corners and walls.” Time is running out. Past is juxtaposed with the present. The characters in this poem are out of step; and it’s dangerous. This poem hints at what the remainder of Bargen’s collection will reveal: age reveals its bars so slowly that when it appears suddenly, it is always surprising. The poem relies on long lines, so that the poem slides like a trombone, sonically, evoking sorrow in the way that Larry Levis did so well in the second half of his career. Bargen nails futility; it rings with the bright notes of regret. “That the last p’ouli/spent four years in a cage deep in tropical forest singing/for a mate that never/came then died of West Nile Virus? I fold my letter/to be postmarked years ago.” The long lines allow the poet to be serpentine, like memory, or life, moving quickly from internal narrative to central conflict: the speaker cannot communicate. Because the opening poem is about communication via letters, writing is as much the subject as emotional emptiness. The woman in the tale wants “what’s left” and the speaker is trying to “suture sentences together”, from “carefully crafted lines” . The truth of what the woman was going to say to the speaker is on the tip of his tongue. It evokes the feeling of a daydream. The elusive truth, just behind the scrim of reality, as everything ages around you. It’s a fitting frame for the collection.
One of the surprises of Too Quick is that at times it mimics a radio playing music from another room. Or better yet, that lazy Spring Saturday afternoon outside when music floats in from another yard. There’s a magic to hearing music from another place, David Lynch’s small town puzzle Twin Peaks uses this trope to varying effects. Bargen gets to play Joseph Cornell, assembling poems that contain other works of art inside the poem. Section one, at times, broadcasts classic rock in “The Bitterness of Forty Yards of Water” , “More Notes than Neil Young”, and in “Kansas Freaks.” Later in section two, classic rock also beams in from Blood, Sweat, and Tears in “The Usual Regrets.” Sheryl Crow and the Rolling Stones appear in the final section. Music references carry weight in poetry, more so than other pop culture references, and the selected tunes allow Bargen to connect with his audience, which so often, in this collection, is his friends and family.
Section one of Too Quick is rife with loneliness. The poems yearn for a connection to a broader and larger consciousness, a connection to humanity and purpose. Bargen reminds us that the human mind is a time traveler, and that wherever we go, we bring the past with us to the present, plus our future worries. The woman the speaker is writing to in the collection’s opening poem is a ghost, of sorts, in “The Bitterness of Forty Yards of Water”, the second poem in the collection. Again, the poet reminds us of how sometimes communication is futile, and unwanted. The two thirty-somethingish men in the poem drink and talk, down by the river, trying to make sense of their lives while young women sunbathe across from the speaker. However the young women “leave before any overtures”. They don’t want to be bothered. The speaker doesn’t want to bother them. He’s in love, trying to write a letter that will never be sent. The speaker is adrift in the poem, barely connected to anything but the letter, and the girl. Billy Preston floats the afternoon with Billy Preston smoothness. The lazy summer feel is fat with pressure: what should I write? How do I write? How do I communicate with this beautiful woman? Bargen ends the poem with the uniting image of swallows “threading dusks and insects together.” This same blending, or merging of the present and memory can be found throughout the collection. In the final section, Bargen accomplishes this in “Family of Stars” when the speaker says: “We are/each other’s speedball eternities. I remember as I remember/until there is no remembering/and the clouds blow into a wider quiet of stars.” By using pop cultural touchstones, evoking the past, while balancing future anxieties, Too Quick resonates in the present. We are haunted by ourselves, and sometimes we can escape, and sometimes we are imprisoned.
In other poems in the collection, Bargen seeks connection with the natural world. The natural world is an antidote to human sufferings, grass, sunlight, birdsong. Poetry has long known what psychology has only just recently proven, that daily connections to nature reduce anxiety and depression. And again, Bargen doesn’t beat drums. Instead he tells stories. He overlaps images. Consider the poem from section three, “Hylozoism” (psst...it’s defined as the doctrine that all matter has life), in which a couple is renovating a house:
His wife on the downstairs porch swings a hammer,
backing out nails out of the forty-year-old
rough cut oak just torn off an interior wall
that was once an exterior wall
before the porch became a bedroom. The oak’s nails
tenacious: First the backing out
against four decades of holding tight, then turning
the board over,
picking up the flat bar, the brief one-note aria that follows,
soprano reaching stratospheric
heights as the nail flips into the air, into the bushes,
another bent note lost.
The removal of a nail brings a shriek, the music, if you will, of the house, and of the past, ringing out in the present. Meanwhile, on the other side of the house, house-cats prowl, and songbirds, phoebes, fly back and forth feeding the young. Life happens, life has happened, life will keep on happening, despite human endeavors. Bargen continues describing the phobes, in which he describes us:
If only parenting were
that easy, deciding on a safe location:
above the reach of snakes and cats, near enough to humans
to inhibit raiding Jays.
Gathering a few twigs and lost hair, shreds of rotting carpet,
Strip of dirty-blue ribbon...then do it again next year. The
As nails sing to a different house.
The human endeavor merges briefly with that of the birds, affording the speaker quotidian harmony with the environment. Truly, if we pay attention, and are mindful in our work, we can be touched by the larger world. We can be enlarged by it.
Too Quick is rooted in nature, rooted in place, allowing Bargen’s poems to explore human connection, our failures and follies. Many of the collection’s poems are written for friends or are about friends, or even cast the friends in the poem, hinging the narrative voice to memory. The intimacy is tangible, and shows up in the details. And when human lives come into play, so does sorrow, anger, hatred, and death. Interestingly enough, many of the dedicated poems come in the early sections of the book. As the collection wends on, there are fewer dedications. However, this too seems intentional, though it is probably coincidental. The effect, however intended, resonates: as you age, children move away, people die, your circle of friends grows smaller.
The final poem serves as a kind of acceptance of mortality. Bargen began Too Quick with “Ascending the Mountain Slowly” and at the end of the collection Bargen returns to the image of ascension in “Paint by Numbers.” It’s an allegorical poem featuring pastoral imagery and men and women wearing “three cornered hats,/codpieces, holey jeans;... hoop skirts, wasp-thin girdles,/Spandex.” It’s a surreal moment where past and present blend as people, dead people, dear reader, walk through the pasture and begin to climb a spiral column of stairs. Where “those who reach/ for the breathless top/have no time for speeches. They plunge after the final step,/carried by a breeze across a garden.” It’s as close to religious imagery as Bargen will offer in Too Quick. He’s riffing off Wislaw Szymborska’s “Starvation at Camp Jaslo” (or Hunger Camp at Jaslo), but instead of describing the holocaust, Bargen’s evokes stairs to illustrate ordinary death all around us. Atrocity is not necessary for suffering, for without it, humans create their own to carry with them until they die. There’s no end it to it. That’s the real punchline. We might die, but suffering goes on and on and on. There’s a blade of grass for every poor schmuck trying to make it out there in the world. It’s a haunting poem, echoing back to the beginning.
Bargen’s style is, for the most part, in line with contemporary American poetics. Bargen uses prose structures when it suits him, free verse when it suits him. Musically the lyricism is driven by assonance and syllabic music, rather than rhyme. Primarily, Bargen composes with alternating long and short lines, sentences with dependent clause attached to dependent clause, followed by terse language. This creates a spiralling effect, or perhaps a rippling effect, in which the poet introduces image or “plot”. The shorter lines create tension, and act as a ratchet driver to tighten the belt of Bargen’s engine. These poems examine middle aged America and by extension, middle aged American poets. The scope of the poems include the early death of a loved one, the almost casual way Americans descend into alcoholism and depression. The recession hammered mid America is still reeling, and it hangs in Bargen’s book like humid air. Jobs are scarce in rural areas, rife with blight. It feels like the end is coming. It shows up like a broken mower, graffiti, a poor man trying to feed his kids, and more importantly it shows up in the emotional life of the aging, buying RVs and then finding the whole enterprise empty, and pointless. Farm belt ennui.
Too Quick for the Living is sonorous exploration of late mid-life. A crystallization that time has passed, and is passing faster and faster. It is not without joy, or humor, celebrating survivors of this American life. Bargen’s latest cuts through the noise and clutter of lives that are chock full of detritus and diversion. From behind these poems, he’s looking in our direction, he’s waving his arms at us. Wake up! Wake up! It’s almost over. Don’t let it be too late.
Stephen Scott Whitaker is a writer and educator. He is the author of four books of poetry. Find him online: https://twitter.com/SScottWhitaker