“A Wild Clarity”: John Wall Barger’s The Mean Game

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The Mean Game
by John Wall Barger
(Palimpsest Press, 96 pages, $18.95 CDN / $17.95 USD)

Suppose not only the laws of physics, but the laws of morality played out before our eyes, moment to moment, in the entirety of things, from depth to surface. Suppose this were a world where all animate beings had feelings, thoughts, and purposes, and where even intentions had consequences—where our cruelties would come back not as phantoms, but as matter. Suppose, moreover, that instead of falling asleep to this reality, or lulling our way out of it, we were to lurch into it again and again, into a full view of our own excesses, crimes, and deformed dreams. Such is the world of John Wall Barger’s book of poetry The Mean Game. Poem after poem wakes us up to ourselves and shakes us into new cadences. I read agog.

In these poems, late and early arrivals are one and the same; no matter when you come to them, they will shake you to the bones, as the Chorus in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon warned long ago (“Zeus has led us on to know, / the Helmsman lays it down as law / that we must suffer, suffer into truth. / We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart / the pain of pain remembered comes again, / and we resist, but ripeness comes as well.”)1 In The Mean Game, instead of Zeus, verse itself rises up, in the form of animals and humans, to remind us who we are and what we have done. No one is excused from the rebuke or released from the illumination.

But how do the poems bring this about? The bare verse, mixing myth with matter, carries the reader into surprise of soul. There are hints of Christopher Smart and Walt Whitman, but instead of Smart’s praise, we encounter admonition; instead of Whitman’s ecstatic catalogues, pain. One might find an affinity, also, between these poems and the works of László Krasznahorkai—particularly his story “The Last Wolf”—but while Krasznahorkai leads the reader into majestic disillusionment, Barger’s poems speak crisply, sometimes anciently, of harm and hope.

The opening poem, “Urgent Message from the Captain of the Unicorn Hunters,” begins, “Release them.” The captain means it. To believe this command is to believe, for the time being, in the unicorns themselves.

Who, what, which unicorns? Immediately the poem tells us:

Release them. Those sealed in your attics.
Those chained in your barns. Those on the nightmare yokes.
Those heads on your walls. This is our fault.
We taught you to torture the unicorn.

Breathless, unadorned, this command comes with the briefest explanation to get to the heart of the matter, namely: we have tortured and killed not only the real animals, but the imaginary ones too, or rather, the imagination carries as much urgency and fallibility as real life, because in it we find our true wrongs. The captain of the unicorn hunters catalogues the teachings— “That it biteth like a lion and kicketh like a horse,” “That unicorn liver (with a paste / of egg yolk) heals leprosy,” and more—the language of almanacs, medicine manuals, and prophesies—and then doubles and triples down on his command:

…………………………. Forget all that.
Taxidermists, lay down your saws.
Keep off, ye farmers of dreams & horns.
We have done enough.

The captain has more to say, though. He continues his incantation, enumerating the cruelties, which go beyond the bearable, and then cries again, “Enough! / Free them to bathe in our rainbows. / Let them loose in their fields of sorrow. / Enough have they tholed.” I paused—many times—on “tholed”: it rang like an old, dim bell from far away. Here it can be taken in both a transitive and intransitive sense. According to the OED, its primary definition of the transitive verb is “To be subjected or exposed to (something evil); to be afflicted with; to have to bear, suffer, endure, undergo.” In its intransitive sense, it can mean “To be patient, have patience, wait patiently.” The word appears in Beowulf, in the Friar’s Tale (of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), in Robert Burns’s The Twa Dogs, and elsewhere.2 It felled me in love with the poem.

Then comes the poem’s great turn and surprise. The captain turns his outrage and astonishment toward himself:

……………………. And you’ll have to forgive:
nothing that’s happened as yet
has prepared me for this. I have taken us too far
off course. Abominations, treason!
It’s up to them now, our lot.
First, let them go. And then we wait.

I write of this poem as though retelling a story in all its suspense, regretting the omission of any word—because the suspense is at the heart of it, not the suspense of what happens next but that of what I have done and where I go from here. At the end, it is our turn to thole; the unicorns must judge our fate. One can take the poem as allegory, but why not accept its literality instead? Can a society abuse its myth indefinitely? Or does myth, like any organic being, show its wounds and amputations, causing the captain to cry out, “Enough!”?

Thus the book begins and proceeds by peering into the unbearable. Two poems later, “The Wonderful Hat” recounts a conversation with a certain drunk Dziengielewski (Chester, perhaps?) who tells that he has had a vision of a past life: “I jumped off a bridge for love. My very last thought was, what a shame to ruin my wonderful hat?” The narrator asks him, “What wonderful hat?”; he replies, “One of those stovepipe hats made out of beaver fur.” (A reader familiar with these poems will see trouble coming.) Asked whether he has such a hat; he replies, “I do not.” The narrator begins to lose track of the conversation; he imagines the hat, to the point where he seems to remember it, takes his leave, and heads into an ending (of the poem) that would be wrong to give away here. Stories within stories, stories overlapping with stories, carry the reader to a place of slow uprising and revelation.

The poems spare no one; there is no room for “This isn’t me.” In “The Problem with Love,” a boy inherits his deceased brother’s tarantula (the brother’s death is mentioned so briefly, at the very beginning, that one could even miss it).

My brother died & I got his tarantula.
Ma asked if I was fucking man enough
& I said “Yeah” so she handed me a book,
Tarantulas, Their Captive Husbandry
& Reproduction, & went back to her TV shows.

The near-pentameter of this poem sweeps you along so that you hardly see what is happening until it is too late. The tarantula has an accident; the boy has a dream that acts as a sequel to it and that seems to occupy days upon days, tarantula legs upon legs, which he cuts off, one by one. At one point, “One morning / I scooped her into my palm, / chatting like the old days / & she just sat there, not biting.” (Throughout the story, she never bit once, but here it seems that she would be justified in doing so, if she chose.) Even in this dream—the “one morning” seems to be part of the long dream, though it might not be—the “old days” become irrevocable; you can scoop up the body, but not the time, not the destruction. What, here, is “The Problem with Love”? Perhaps death itself: that love springs out of death, threatens death, and dies—not only that, but it turns us into killers and corpses. The mother going back to her TV shows may be such a corpse. Is there anyone who has not killed love in some way, or been killed by love? Or worse, are there cruelties that we write off as dreams or trifles, that we scrub away without further thought?

If this is what we do, if life filled with cruelties that we ignore in ourselves, where can good be found? “A Briefe and Marveyllous Hystory of Franklin,” set in a Middle English time, offers a clue. A woman, after two years of pregnancy, gives birth, astonishingly, to a colt. “Harke yee, / ’tis a hors,” says Father, his spoon dropping from his hands. But this Franklin the horse does not “adapt / to the mansion,” nor does he have to; he can do without his family, who eventually keep their distance from him. He loves to spend time in the barn; he knows when the slaughter-days are, and when they come, he spends time with the animal about to be killed.

Today it is Sally the pig.
He nestles his great black nose
on her belly. He wants
as he always wants
to emancipate them
to lead them to the blue field
he dreamt of. But where is
the blue field? And what then?

The poem does not resolve his questions, but it seems that they—and the actions as well—could only come from Franklin: that is, the unexpected amalgam of horse and human, recalling Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Kindness to Horses” (“Dear horse, please don’t. / Sweet horse, listen– / What are you thinking, that you’re worse off than they? / Child, / we are all a little bit horse, / each of us a horse in his particular way….”)3 This is a quiet hero, not overly sure of the body or the mind, but guided by dreams, memories, and questions. Franklin wants to “emancipate them” but knows that he does not know what this means. He reasons to himself with a near-quote from Romans 12:12 (“Be not conformed to this truth / but be ye transformed by the renewing of— / what?”) He cannot remember how it goes, and so he completes the homily himself, telling Sally that life is a “furyous dræm”; the hint of early Middle English, “dræm,” allows this word to suggest not only “dream,” but “din,” “clamor,” “lamentation,” or even “jubilation.”4  The phrase is puzzlingly evocative, but of what? Maybe of Macbeth’s “tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing”—but if so, Franklin takes the “nothing” to task. He adds “that he’ll see her again anon / that she has been chosen / for suffering, which is noble.” There is something more than wishful thinking here; Franklin creates truth through his attention to Sally and her dignity. He also stretches out time, as long as he can; after Sally blinks, an hour goes by before he crouches and she steps onto his back. Then “he walks her / the long way around the pond / as slow as he can”—an act of love in complete contrast to, even in defiance of, that of the boy with the tarantula. Franklin is the timesmith, the one who pulls softly against fate.

The book is filled with treasures and startlements: “The Stiltwalkers,” whose voices the speaker hears “drowning phonemes, / through the floors”; “The Bureaucrats,” whose surveys we must fill out “even in our dreams”; “Penitentiary,” where the speaker wakes “wearing the ocean,” “wearing a Lao Tzu smile,” “wearing wind for a nose”; “My Houseguest,” where, after a visit from a giraffe, the objects in the room assume “a wild clarity. / As if nobody was there to see them”; “The External Lung,” which “climbed on my lap / like an old cat / & shut her eyes”; “On the Curiously Sinister Hearts of Donkeys,” where a general or some sort of leader, his “swanky uniform cluttered / with medallions,” cuts off a donkey’s head, puts it on, and begins “braying rhetoric to the multitudes”; and many more. What brings them together is not only a unity of story—in some way they all point toward the same thing—but their brilliant horse sense, their way of saying the bare thing as it has never been said before.

Back to Franklin the horse: he reasons to himself, “Be not conformed to this truth / but be ye transformed / by the renewing of— / what?” The answer to this “what” fills The Mean Game: the terrible insight, the lovely full moons, the tholing and braying, the feel of a nonexistent hat. Rarely does a book of poetry bring such pleasure and reckoning at once—and The Mean Game does it like no other.

1. Aeschylus, Agamemnon, in The Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides, tr. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Classics, 1977), 109.

2. “thole, v.”. OED Online. June 2019. Oxford University Press.

3. Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Khoroshee otnoshenie k loshadiam” Novaia zhizn’, July 9, 1918; this translation by Diana Senechal appears, in excerpt, in Senechal, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 71–72.

4. See “dream, n.1”. OED Online. June 2019. Oxford University Press. The OED tentatively treats “dream” (din, sound, lamentation, jubilation, etc.) and “dream” (images, thoughts, emotions generated by mental activity when asleep) as two distinct words. It associates only the first of the two with the late Old English and early Middle English dræm.