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July 22, 2013 / barton smock

review by Emma Hall of Barton Smock’s self published poetry collection Hallelujah Lip-Synch

(update:  book, as such, is now only available by request…but still, was floored, then and now, to be understood in this way…)

A friend I made on writerscafe.org, Emma Hall, has kindly reviewed my self-published poetry collection, Hallelujah Lip-Synch (June 2013). More than kind, more than serious. Am grateful.

review by Emma Hall for Barton Smock’s self –published poetry collection Hallelujah Lip-Synch

“…language has been honed to unprecedented degrees of precision, but it exists within – and in some way acknowledges – some primal and nearly annihilative silence.” – Christian Wiman (from October 2012 issue of Poetry magazine from essay “Mastery and Mystery: Twenty-One Ways to Read a Century”)

The work of Barton Smock, a prolific mid-western poet, modifies the meaning of Christian Wiman’s idea in that it seeks unceasingly for the spaces between those ‘annihilative silence[s]’ that would pursue us, and for the watchful reader opens some door into human experience in a way that is at once intensely personal and detached. Through the manipulation of both common and cerebral language Smock’s poems maintain a dance between the familiar and the unspeakable. They act as a shout to the silences that curl up in experience- offering some view from the inside of that experience, but never in an expected way.

I discovered Smock’s poetry only a short time ago, but knew immediately that is was something to be passed around and carefully handled. And, though he publishes multiple volumes per year, the impact or immediacy of each collection is in no way decreased. In his latest collection, Hallelujah Lip-Synch, he picks up where he has left off in previous books exploring the relational distances from the past that linger, maybe even draw closer, as the years pull out in a line ahead of the man seeking to come to terms with history.

The themes of family, abuse, poverty, and alienation figure heavily in the book, but to call this confessional poetry seems a bit out of keeping with what is traditionally considered confessional. He speaks of mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers while also utilizing the first person, but the reader can never be exactly sure who these characters are. They are changeable, and often engaging in nearly surreal activity that might confuse more than enlighten. The key seems to be finding some language to quantify suffering, or some way of qualifying experience out of context – which at moments brings it ever more sharply into sight – as with the prose poem “no madness”. Here, with sparse, stilted language Smock illuminates what could be read as the child’s need to find his own way; sustain himself:

a dog, plainly. noses water bowl to mid-yard to the spot. exact it
will rain. rain soonly. a word the town uses. (sit) one yells from a slowly
passing go-cart. someone’s mother. I often think for.

and what is there to think but that this “dog” is left to provide for itself? Moving its own bowl to the place where it might catch that essential thing for all life- water. The phrasing of the first movement “a dog, plainly” could itself lead the reader to understand that this isn’t a dog we’re talking about at all, but a child. In keeping with the entire body of the collection, the form of the poem reveals just as much as the carefully chosen words.

A similar thread runs through the rest of the book as readers are exposed to the friction and anxiety that are inherent to life within a family. There are pieces, but they do not fit together cleanly, and the one who works to make the picture whole only becomes more bewildered with the discovery of each new piece. There would seem to be a hovering tension, or preparation running through the entire collection while blow after blow is dealt to the reader via the unsuspecting speaker, as in the poem “euphoric period” where the reader is told :

the only person I don’t recognize
is dying / in the house / is dying

from my
boredom.

There is a sense that there is some tragedy or embarrassment lurking around every corner. A reader might also come to suspect that even when we imagine things are just as they should be, or as close as they can be to right, there is something that is lying in wait; a victim or consequence of our boredom and disconnection that could not have been calculated with eyes of the present.

In Hallelujah Lip-Synch, as in previous collections, Smock has found a way to speak for those who don’t perhaps know that they have something important to say; to share. The marginalized child, the grieving mother, the ailing child or sibling- they will all find a voice here, and though it might not be the way they would voice the affliction that rests within them, they are sure to recognize their faces. Whether this is a burden or a blessing remains a judgment to be formed by the individual reader, but I find the poetry in this collection to be full of the intensity of experience in a way that I can’t help but identify and empathize. Something preserved so as not to be forgotten, and perhaps repeated.

– Emma Hall

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