I am thrilled to see Rachel Barbe’s “Addressing 30: A Timeline” (ISBN: 978-1-61623-745-5) win the 2009 Karen Fredericks and Frances Willitts Chapbook Prize. A fellow teacher and DU grad, Barbe has created an open, vulnerable collection that escapes the confessionalistic cliche of me me me, while making her own life a prism for the reader to break down and evaluate his/her own. Barbe accomplishes this through recurring themes of nakedness, family relationships, and sex.
The opening poem, “Photograph,” (which for some reason is incomplete on the link above) sets the stage for the entire chapbook:
“Their eyes were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they made coverings for themselves.” -Genesis 3:7
I was two or three in the picture,
facing the camera nearly naked,
my shoulders drawn together,
My mother hands me
after I asked her to find it
in the brown fabric covered album.
She says she and Dad have discussed it,
and want to apologize
if they have done anything
to traumatize me,
she says it certainly wasn’t traumatizing
at the time. It was a good day.
Sometimes when we see tings as adults
we see them with different eyes; she says
they seem much worse than they actually were.
She says I don’t want you to think
I was a bad mom.
I hug her and promise that
I’m not traumatized.
I say this as if I didn’t need her
to tell me that she’s sorry.
Maybe I was a happy kid.
Maybe I didn’t go looking for shame.
And maybe it didn’t find me in that
blank two-car driveway, on a hot July afternoon.
Perhaps the green garden hose did not
coat me with it as I stood
panty-clad in toddler innocence
beside the red pickup truck
glazed with hard water.
Barbe establishes the theme of nakedness–as both beauty and doubt, sensual and shameful, as identity–and the potential wounds that relationships (especially family) guarantee. The (not so?) subtle reference to Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow” suggests that so much depends on this photograph, this moment. What personal impact does it have on us when we realize our nakedness, our vulnerability as children, the advantage others take of us when we are simply playing in the sprinklers?
Following this childhood memory, Barbe launches into a time line of her life, covering such topics as moving, chores, piano lessons, camping, funerals, and new schools. Throughout, she reveals strong family ties that are far from perfect, but obviously valued. However, the theme of naked vulnerability never goes away. Consider “Losing”:
I can’t stop looking in the mirror.
I am transfixed by my own
wide blue eyes and milky skin.
In the car, I gaze into the passenger side mirror
at the curl of my hair falling
between a curve of shoulder
and one small, exquisite ear.
Walking down a long hall toward a mirror
I critique my stride, my clothing,
turn slightly to the side and note
that I am neither who I was nor
who I want to be–nakedly in between.
I have forgotten my name.
Did I wash it off in the shower?
In a dream just before waking,
did it slip away?
Did the wind rip it from my throat
in a vehement scream?
I am awkwardly awake in my only skin.
Barbe’s questioning of her identity grabs my attention because I often struggle with my own. I place my value as a poet on my publishing record (what a stack of rejection letters!) and as a teacher on what others say. While in my head I know where my identity should rest (hello, God), I still find myself awkwardly awake in my own skin, certain of so many things, yet totally uncertain about so many other things.
I don’t really have a ranking system for poetry books, especially since I can find some sort of value or experience in anything I read. However, you need to read this short collection from a poet new to the scene.