VALERIE MORTON Reviews
ONE BLACKBIRD AT A TIME by Wendy Barker
(BkMk Press, Kansas City, MO, 2015)
This collection brings us a teacher who interweaves literature into the lives of her pupils in a unique and inspiring way. Wendy Barker’s keen eye for detail results in one of the most exciting and original poetry collections I have read for a long time.
From the title of the very first poem “I Hate Telling People I Teach English” I was hooked, reminded of how every profession has its pitfalls—the doctor who can never attend a party without someone wanting a medical diagnosis, the lawyer next door who becomes a butt for all grievances—and so to the honest English Teacher whose never “been quick enough to fudge” or invent some obscure title for herself to avoid being asked to look over someone’s life’s work, or when admitting she writes poetry gets the response “Ah, fluffy stuff” or “I hated English—all that grammar”. Even in a hospital waiting room, a GP’s surgery, or with mouth locked open in a dentist’s chair.
But in a positive way this only goes to prove the power of literature or the desires of all people to get their stories out there and to lift their ordinary lives into the extraordinary.
As a child it was my mother who brought the world of poetry to the kitchen table and made me realise how important it is to have someone in your life to hand you this most precious gift—I would have loved this to have been carried into my schooling and to have found a teacher like Wendy Barker who would have brought me Emily Dickinson “hovering at the ceiling’s buzzing lights … like an unfamiliar freckled moth” or a “slip of thread lifted by the wind”. A teacher who made me question more my love affairs with the 19th century heroines in their whale-boned corsets inside which so much was hidden and “begin to growl” at the predictability within those pages—thinking that the only way out was a happy ending, a squashing of free spirits—a teacher who made me question and move on to a much more comfortable era for women.
When pupil Gary asks “Will we ever read any normal people in this class” the teacher quips “No, of course not” before we are lead into Uncle Walt’s “Song of Myself”:
celebrating our “respiration and inspiration” travelling along
with the voices of sailors, prostitutes, presidents and tree-toads,
in sync with the poet’s vision. No-one,
this time – not even Gary – grumbled about
Whitman’s disgusting ego, and yet when we came to the place
where God is “a loving bedfellow”
who leaves “baskets covered with white towels
bulging their house with their plenty,” I was the one who
wanted to stop.
(from Books, Bath Towels and Beyond)
This is no ordinary teacher/pupil relationship; it is so much more than that. Her pupils become the poems and poems the pupils—and at no time does she spare herself the confessional, the power of literature to take us down paths long hidden in ourselves—our furies, our weaknesses, our passions—it is almost like being in that classroom ourselves re-living sorrows, joys, failings, questioning ourselves as in “Trying to Launch Passage to India” as it tries to come to terms with racism, language, acceptance and identity— “what happened in the Malabar caves?” —the uncertainty of who we are, what we believe and how quickly we can change.
By the end of the semester “it feels like layers of skin being peeled” as the teacher wants to say Keep in touch, don’t get lost” but fearing it maybe herself she is losing - and that is the culmination of her involvement, the power of the literature she is teaching and the knowledge that maybe people’s lives will be changed because of this.
Who could leave this book without Robert Frost—how one little word from one pupil— “lovely” —sets off a myriad of mixed emotions in the teacher: memories of the death of her father and how he had asked her to recite “Stopping by the Woods” as he lay on his deathbed. And when the class recites it, no one wants to speak or leave until she has to tell them to go, that it is past time for dinner and “all the nagging promises waiting for them to keep”.
I left this book feeling the same, searching for the truth deep inside myself, determined to read more poetry, to find new paths—this collection is a seminar in itself—who needs the classroom—Wendy Barker, the teacher, is in every page.
Valerie Morton is a UK based poet whose work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies. She has an Open University degree including Creative Writing which she taught at a mental health charity. A member of Ver Poets, she hosts workshops at her home and from January 2016 has been Poet in Residence at the Clinton-Baker Pinetum in Hertfordshire. Her first collection Mango Tree was published by Indigo DreamsPublishing in 2013 and her second Handprints in 2015 by the same publisher.