The lyric sequence comprising Jennifer Barber’s Given Away begins in August and ends in August, recording the speaker’s interactions—one almost wants to say “intercessions”—with a world of haunting absences where “quiet reigns” and “heat gathers in the crown / of an oak” so the speaker can ‘sow the light of reckoning.’”
One might think of Given Away as a travelogue except that, even while traveling in the course of the year—to Ireland and to a variety of cities in Spain—the speaker turns real landscapes into a topography of the interior where she seems oddly content to wait “for the rain / to start and stop”… and “for emptiness to fill / the fireplace” in a cottage on Achill Island.
The conflict underpinning this section of “Achill Island Fears” is the speaker’s “reckoning” with a companion who has been gone for three hours when the speaker just “wanted an hour alone.” But even this brief narrative retelling diminishes the poem’s grace—its almost saintly acquiescence and stillness—for Given Away is not interested in stories or in the characters who open their mouths to tell them. To borrow a phrase from Robert Hass on Whitman’s first truly imagistic poems, the poems of Given Away “simply present and by presenting [assert] the adequacy and completeness of our experience of the physical world.”
Only here, in Jennifer Barber’s hands, the goal is not so much to represent the real physical world verbally as to use representative imagery to make a series of portraits of the more internal experience of being a “revved-up soul” … “in the garden / on the shred of a stalk.” That is, the startling images Barber conjures out of the landscape of a year are the real story of Given Away.
Even the book’s wranglings with thoughts of death and mysterious romantic encounters far from America do not overcome the overarching drama of the speaker’s willingness to relinquish or give over—to give away—whatever the self or soul is in order to understand “the angels on the lid / of the cookie tin” more fully.
The poems of Given Away are a series of platforms upon which Barber prayerfully retorts to everything—God, the universe—because it is the way of this poet to “study” things and therein to “steady” them.
In this hyperactive, multiphonic age of bits and bits on top of bytes (in which the now archaic-seeming idea of an “information overload” can seem more and more like information sickness), such contemplative gestures feel essential.