Tony Barnstone’s Beast in the Apartment (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2014) comes with a book cover of William Blake’s etching of Cerebrus, the three headed creature, used to illustrate Dante’s Inferno, and hints at potential encounters. The beast in the apartment is a paper lion, rather than a tiger, that comes alive. Barnstone, (like his father, Willis Barnstone, the respected poet and New Testament scholar), is well travelled, an accomplished translator of Chinese poetry, with a solid grounding in religious studies and a number of poetic traditions. Indeed, his father appears and reappears throughout the book. Barnstone’s previous books include, The Golem Of Los Angeles (Red Hen Press, 2008), which exudes a joyful playfulness in its modern psalms, parables, testaments, sermons, sutras and gospels, and Tongue of War: from Pearl Harbor to Nagaski (BkMk Press, 2009), which offers multiple perspectives from found material from both sides of the Pacific conflict. Both are well worth reading.
Beast in the Apartment, divided into five sections, with crisp narrative poems, traditional sonnets, repeated imagery and intriguing, yet not in-yer face, juxtapositions is perhaps more conventional than his earlier work. It works around a series of opposites or near opposites and has a smoothness and symmetry. The poem, ‘The Strangeness’, for example, with its hinted echoes of John Donne, follows a poem where Friedrich Nietzsche’s on the eve of mental breakdown sees a cab-horse flogged and begins to eat hunger, relates the experience of seeing a strange, dead creature washed up by the swale, to two sets of couples, (moving bodies, synced and unsynced) that disperse and separate as a memory trace.
the way in memory the people that we were
are just now shaking the sand off the blanket
and folding, and you take my arm and squeeze
the bicep as we walk to the car, and I shift my neck
to pilfer a last, small glance at the strangeness of it all,
of all we leave behind us, gleaming on the sand.
‘The Strangeness’ echoes later as one reads the sequence and considers whether the narrator’s encounter with Gwyneth on the beach is a matter of luck, randomness or fate, and whether we read the strange creature as an emblem of all our dead selves. The poem is skillfully placed to end the first section with its worship of women’s bodies and seemingly fatal and camouflaged world.
The second section has some fine sonnets, such as ‘Die’, with its amusing opening line, ‘One day your toe fell off, the tiniest toe’, and ‘Lamp or Mirror’, on the strangeness of self, with its last line, ‘The mirror breaks. I gasp awake. He’s here.’, which serves to add to the circular play of absence and presence, life and death, old self and new self. The third section follows watchmakers from Istanbul, his father dancing, and the thief of time, and segues into the fourth section titled after the medieval concept of rota fortuna, casting its shadow, dominated by a sequence of sonnets, odes to chaos and bags, and a plea to marry opposites:
And yet when starlight fills Yosemite
like dreams, then we might understand this call:
to put down iPhones, turn off HBO,
and find the hidden meadow, secret cove,
to turn back from the world we think we know
and enter the ecology of love.
The last section, the beast in the apartment, echoes the first and third sections and serves to produce a wonderful circularity that plays around with the themes of fullness and emptiness, order and disorder, life and death, past loves and new loves, movement of bodies, and saying goodbye to former selves, fumbling in the darkness of a new becoming.
David Caddy 25th January 2014