Inside Out by L.L. Barkat

I first came across Barkat’s poetry while perusing the issue of Catapult Magazine that published my first poem. Barkat’s poem, “Stayed”, was reprinted from her latest book, Inside Out. Here’s the poem:

Stayed by L.L. Barkat

Why do we not
leave home.
Is it really for fear
of what lies
beyond, or rather
for fear that the
roof will abscond
with the doors
and the shutters
we’ve always known.
And who would they
blame if it happened
just so, if the whole
curtained place simply
picked up its stakes,
disappeared on the wind
in our absence. What
are we really afraid
of, why do we not
leave home.

Two things struck me about Barkat’s writing style: her use of punctuation and her short-lined style. I added Inside Out to my wish list and then didn’t think much more about it. Then, last summer, I read and blogged about Refractions by Makoto Fujimura. I liked Refractions so much that I did a little reasearch on Fujimura, and came across his organization, International Arts Movement, whose sole purpose is to unite artists of all types across the globe. I came across Barkat’s work again, stumbled upon her blog, seedlingsinstone.blogspot.com, and discovered that Inside Out was published by IAM. (Barkat’s blog is great by the way, with a great mixture of poems, prompts, reviews, and photos. To say the blog is active is the understatement of this young 2011.) Anyways, I can’t help but to find connections between books, thoughts, people, websites, ideas, etc. I also keep a watchful eye on Christian artists and their art. I’ve blogged quite a bit in the past about “church cheese” and the Christian artist’s failure to write/draw/compose about anything but the cross of Jesus in a mode copied from pop culture. (For new readers, I value the cross, and the sacrifice, and the resurrection, and the gift of grace, but that’s the beginning of the journey, not the end.) Barkat is not a church cheese poet, though her faith is evident in her work. I really appreciate how her poems are accessible and meaningful. I’m jealous of Barkat’s ability to pack a crystal clear punch in such short, concise language.

In the book’s introduction, Barkat explains how she came to be a poet, after so many years of leaving the writing of poetry to others,

“which is the tale of poetry-writing for many people. Unable to copy the clipped meter of Dickinson or the narrative voice of Frost, they give up and leave the effort to others. If the writing of poetry were not such a satisfying and healing endeavor, this would be a fine conclusion. It is not, however, a conclusion I encourage.

Few of us who play with words will become the next poet laureate, but why should that stop us? If we can read poetry well, or speak poetry in normal conversation, . . . then it might not hurt to try writing poetry too. At some point I must have decided this for myself.”

Barkat goes on to explain that she challenged herself to go outside every day and pay attention to her surroundings. Many of the poems in the book come from this challenge. This book has a unique sense to it, not just as a collection of poems, but some time-outs from life as well, some stops amidst the craze, some moments that would never demand to be written down because they would have never been noticed if it weren’t for a challenge. So there are many poems that have a haiku/senryu/tanka feel to them, amidst some longer poems. It’s a nice touch, I think. Here are a few examples of the shorter poems:

Fall’s dry fingers open
winter’s white duvet,
shake and ready it.

Geese call overhead,
fading sound of
goodbye summer.

Snow empties the sky
to a bare whiteness, but
it fills me, fills me.

How desperately
the dog next door
tells the world
that I am
here.

I said earlier that I was drawn by Barkat’s short-lined style. One poet who uses short lines a majority of the time is Kay Ryan, former US Poet Laureate. Honestly, I don’t think Ryan is very good at the short line business. The line endings seem haphazard and unintentional, leaving her poems, well, flat. This is the thought I had as I worked my way through Inside Out. Now, not all of Barkat’s poems in this collection are short-lined, but many of them are. Here are three that stuck with me (and they appear in this order in the book, too.):

You

move me
with
your sorrow, I
open my mouth
and it is like
the promise of apples,
honey fragrant
on air,
a barely there
wish, I swallow
emptiness.

Barkat doesn’t sacrifice the independence of each line to force the poem into a short-lined rectangle like Ryan. This poem must have short lines because the obvious tension, but the rhythm and enjambment lead perfectly into the last line, the final emphasis of expectation versus reality. Because of this emphasis, I can’t help but think the “move” in the first line has a negative connotation. After my first several reads, I inferred the move to be inspirational. But when one expects sweet, juicy apples and gets nothing, there is bitter disappointment. What a great image by the way.

Nostalgia

I miss
the place
that cradled stars
in blackness,
even while
my heart
searched for
the elusive
lullaby.

Opening a poem with this title with “I miss” doesn’t surprise the reader, but we keep reading because we want to know what the exact place is that is being missed. Thus, “place / that cradled stars / in blackness” forces the reader to think about what place Barkat is referring to. I’m not necessarily nostalgic for darkness, or dark places, as those places (literal or figuratively) are usually not worth remembering. So we have short, tense lines that directly oppose nice, baby words like cradled and lullaby. The word “even” draws a comparative feel between the two halves of the poem. The place can be literal (the uterus, a nursery, a mother’s arms, a favorite, childhood camping spot) or figurative (heaven, childhood innocence). The lullaby in the last line can be an actual lullaby, a search for peace or comfort, music, etc. I also find it interesting that the first verb, miss, is present tense, while the verb in the last half is in past tense. So the speaker seems to have failed in the search for that lullaby, but there is still nostalgia regardless. “Nostalgia” is a great example of an open poem, where the poet doesn’t force the experience or the epiphany on the reader.

Hibernate

It is not
a killing word,
a crisis

word
a trauma word.
It is

a tender deep
warm primal
lay me

down to sleep
word, a nestle
into rest

word that
touches darkness
unafraid.

I’m drawn to the darkness in this poem, most likely because I’ve been writing poems about light for almost two years now. The enjambment and short lines are again important in this poem. “Word” appears five times, which is tricky in a poem this short. But “word” is placed differently throughout the poem as to avoid becoming its own cliche. At the beginning of the poem, “word” is emphasized by being placed at the end of lines or on its own line. In the last two stanzas, “word” appears at the beginning of the line, shifting attention away from “word” and onto the idea. Hibernation suggests rest over time. But rest is a bad word in America these days. You can’t make it if you aren’t going 24/7. Smart phones and Internet have made it possible to work all the time. Tell a professional athlete or coach to take a rest, and they will say that they will lose. Tell a business man to rest and he will lost money. Tell writers to rest and they’ll claim a deadline. And yet, what happens if we face that darkness of hibernation, of elongated rest, of restoration? We can only dream.

I look forward to buying more of Barkat’s work, as her concise, thought-provoking, open poems are simple, sensitive and contemplative. I’m faced with the challenge that I may not be paying close enough attention to the speed-of-light life I’m rocketing through.

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3 thoughts on “Inside Out by L.L. Barkat

  1. Goodness, this is a beautiful description of the work. You’ve opened my eyes to things I didn’t see (I write with such instinct that I don’t tend to evaluate what’s really going on as I write.)

    Well now, I shall have to read some of YOUR poetry. 🙂

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