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The Spirit Level Paperback – October 25, 1995
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Fortunately, there is very little worst in this book. When he's on, Barber works his hypervocab like a well-tuned instrument: "Congeries of lumpish caps, clustered thrusts / of lucid delicacies conjugated out of rot"; "the weaving coast route out of the mission town / hewn from wind-drubbed cliffs by platoons of coolies"; "imperiously democratic, scrupulously discomposed, / it's worked clean through the bottom / of the watering can, throttled the shears / with cankers, caked the one good trowel." Not much in this book is conventionally portrayed, instead reglossed with the gaze of a passionate thinker until something internal gleams.
And this is more a thinker than a feeler writing. His "personal" poems are precious few and laden with the kind of intellection that turns them not into windows on his past emotional reality so much as telescopes, or microscopes. Barber's concern with precision is a cursed blessing; as I've tried to show above, when music drives the thought, it startles, but when thought drives the thought, it stumbles. Aside from "Zooms and Pans" and maybe "The Divided City" (both spilling over into clunky from sheer verbiage), these poems, including "First Light, False Dawn", "The Lather", "The Favor", and the superb "Nocturne" (one reason to buy the book) strike a better balance between words and spirit.
For a first book, this is strong. Barber has successfully courted Auden's Dame Philology and is well into wooing the Muse ("Memo On the Hereafter" and "Dawn of the Atom" brim with imagination - of a wistful and creepy kind, respectively). This book is not avant-garde, political, or a wormhole of ironies, but it will make you turn, with pleasure, to your dictionary. That is one kind of seduction I personally ask of poetry: to flesh out my language with the unexpected.
Often writing from the perspective--though not the voice--of a child, or from the perspective of an adult looking back on childhood, Barber succeeds in capturing the sense of a world newly experienced, one of magic, discovery, horror, and delight, where the underside of a bridge seems like an "imperial vault" and where "every full moon/ [seems] a scorching lump of coal above the freightyards/ and men and beasts alike dance for their lives." These childhood surprises are interwoven with formative moments in American history, such as a ride on the early railway, the arrival of the south's first mail-order brides, and a 1953 nuclear test over St. George, UT.
If memory is the spirit level that Barber uses to revisit and re-measure the contours of the past, what saves these poems from nostalgia is an attention to the many fissures and aporias that haunt memory. Rather than gloss over these moments, Barber seizes them as opportunities to re-imagine the truth. After all, "What is memory," he asks, "But what the body agrees to abide by?"