Walter Bargen’s 23rd poetry collection, entitled Until Next Time, from Singing Bone Press is as much about place as it is about finding place, as one journeys through the world, through the body. Many of Bargen’s poems are set in middle America, and so too are many in this collection, but this collection feels western, sparse, beautiful but dangerous, and Bargen acts as a guide leading the reader on a walkabout of sorts.
Bargen is a survivor, a veteran writer, and poet, refining still, the craft and art of writing. At times Until Next Time could have come off as jaded for there are moments of loss where disappointed anger seeps through, but overall Bargen’s perspective is a hopeful one, even in the final poem, “Don’t We Rain” which finds the speaker counting and measuring failure by not only Prufrockian spoons, but through success, which can be is own failure, “the blind alley we walk down and down again, and in/blindness, where we begin to run our hands along/the walls.” The poem crisscrosses personal and professional success and failure, as well as it explores the conundrum of fences and tree pruning, which like success and failure, largely depend on your point of view, and though Bargen’s final images are of thirst and the Cuyahoga River on fire, the focus is on love, “Don’t we all want to love the world?” And anyone reading poetry is likely to answer yes, yes we do. Bargen knows this and also knows that the world is full of people who don’t want to love the world, but like climate deniers and flat-earthers, swaying them is nearly impossible, and that knowledge, that truth, lies heavy on the collection. It’s not like Bargen is addressing the aforementioned folks, but rather addressing all those people we cannot communicate with, be them parents, friends, or past lovers. There is weariness here. We just keep fumbling around in the dark; the world keeps spinning, the earth is dying, and we keep on doing the same things over and over. Consider how Bargen snakes this prosy line to illustrate frustration: “It turns out there’s not enough fence and not fence/that’s high enough to keep a raccoon or cat from climb/ing the house to the second story eave to destroy a/phoebe nest, leaving the mother to call all morning and/afternoon, for its mate, for its just hatched brood, for a/world beyond love, hate, but not beyond loss.” There’s no shortage of terror in the world, of all kinds, but love is the only response; and the only response that heals.
At times Bargen’s poems express the desire to become part of nature, and nature’s ability to become part of us. This impetus is largely spiritual, but Bargen works the literal into the repeating motif in the early poem, “Not Enough Sky” where Bargen tells the story of how young men of the Salish tribes would climb fir trees and vanish. At night the holes poked into the sky would let in the starlight of a world no longer available to them. It’s an apt analogy for not only the creation of the night sky but also of death, the final journey into another world. Conversely, Bargen also employs the motif of the world entering us, also a spiritual transaction. In “Once Across”, after feeding ducks, “evening enters us” and the speaker dines on “scarlet clouds” as “Marbled waters drain to pastel.” Throughout Until Next Time, Bargen notes these exchanges where we are enlarged by the world coming into the senses, while at the same time we wish to be absorbed completely into the cosmos, to become everything. This transfigurative motif serves as a kind of compass. Am I coming or am I going? Where am I in the world? What about my little voice? And Bargen uses it criss-cross physical and spiritual space.
And the physical world is dangerous. In the title poem, Bargen reminds “Nothing can fully wake us/except the next thrust/ of pain...So little we can do/For protection except hide/some sane fragment/of self, hoping it survives/and can be recalled...” All before the poem’s narrative explodes into a frontier nightmare that eventually, over time, becomes a conversation over coffee, in the middle of America, gossipping about the dead.
Until Next Time gives up plenty of bodies and offers plenty of moments for elegy and celebration. And after a lifetime, Bargen’s voice is somehow both still and restless, envigorated by the world despite all of its grief.
Stephen Scott Whitaker (@SScottWhitaker) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the managing editor for The Broadkill Review. Whitaker is a teaching artist with the Virginia Commission for the Arts, an educator, and a grant writer. His poems have appeared in Oxford Poetry, The Scores, Grub Street, and Anderbo, among other journals. He is the author of four chapbooks of poetry and a broadside from Broadsided Press. Mulch, his novel of weird fiction is forthcoming from Montag Press in 2020.