The Mean Game

By John Wall Barger

Palimpsest. 96 pp. $17.95.

Reviewed by John Timpane

John Wall Barger recently returned to Philly from a long reading tour supporting The Mean Game, his new poetry collection. Born in New York City, Barger grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and has lived in many places since, accounting, maybe, for the sweeping reach of his poems.

A Philadelphia resident for a few years now, Barger is a furious energy center in this town’s poetry scene.

This book is a gallery of myths, each of a kind of cruelty, many of them, perhaps all, related to love. (At one point love is called a “mean game,” but it’s hardly the only such game.) Barger creates mythlike tales that explore the human urge to unkindness and destruction. Often something approaching tenderness surges, as in “The Two-Headed House,” in which a man rides on a woman’s back until

First chance she gets,

She bites off his head. He hangs on,

headless, evermore. His quiet infuriates.

But on full moons, the evenings he used to sing

the old songs to her, she feels sentimental.

There’s plenty of beauty in this book, to be sure, much of the time terrible beauty. Witness the vibrant, lyrical last eight lines of this book, from “This This Is the End”:

And when and when the last bird shuts its eyes

And the flesh of the last whale

Drifts like pollen in turquoise ink

And dust devils are lords of the squares

And trees reclaim the stars

Still the stars glister like sparklers

In the hand of a girl

Still the earth our grave hurdles with grace in the dark

Simply breathtaking, this is. Somehow, beauty outlasts suffering, and consciousness itself, beyond the last bird, whale, and city. The poem is too honest and direct to be despairing. Those two fulcrums, Still, tell us all that.

Honest and direct well-suits Barger’s style, a voice so utterly distinct, especially as of July 2019, that the reader of these poems is constantly alert, entertained, pitched into fruitful perplexities. In “Chernobyl,” Annie Edson Taylor, “first to survive Niagara Falls in a barrel,” walks naked through the aisles of an abandoned hyper-acute hospital in the postapocalyptic city. (“How, you wonder,/ did she get here? Don’t ask me.”) (Plenty of humor-notes trill throughout.) Surreal, sure; slashing and bashing, oh, yes. And does it make us readers more acute, imaginations kindled, picking up more signal? Oh, yes again.

Oh, look, here’s Leda — caustically retold from Yeats. There’s Prometheus, also repurposed, also caustically. “Crow & Fox in Love” is one of several allegories of, maybe, love itself, in which one violates another repeatedly, and when the violated one leaves, cries out, “Why … / do you not behave?/ Can’t you accept an apology?”

Constantly the reader encounters the unexpectable. In the beautiful “Ash Baptism,” my favorite in this collection, a possibly deific Grand Seigneur looms before the speaker, who asks: “The Twinkie in your claw … / Is that the soul?” In “My Houseguest,” we get a cinematic rendezvous:

The doorknob

turned in the dark: an orange creature

slithered in, slow, soundless,

neck unfolding like a sorcerer’s hand.

A giraffe. She lay her great head

on my lap. “I hoped to meet,”

she said, “before they took me.”

There is a momentary idyll. Terrible things happen, loss … and at the end, a “wild clarity.”

Which is John Wall Barger’s specialty. Do some of these poems rely overmuch on violence, the sweeping gesture, the acrid peripeteia? Maybe. Are some moves telegraphed? Some. On the whole, however, this is an original and important book, probing the Mean Game (both love and our network of mean games) as never before. I’ve been reading and re-reading it for a few months now, not always with the book anywhere nearby; the poems simply play and play and play.