Barnburner by Erin Hoover
Elixir Press, October 2018
88 pages / Elixir Press
If there is an underside to the age of next-level self-awareness and self-affirmation in which we currently find ourselves, it might be that we have lost the ability to be equally self-critical. As we learn to remind ourselves that we each have genuine individual value, and that the people and institutions who want us to feel otherwise must be put on notice, it seems more difficult to shine that harsh light inward—to acknowledge that we also might share some degree of cultural culpability. Increasingly, we think, we must be solely on either the right or wrong side of history–and not just our shared history, but our personal histories, in which we use our public platforms to craft shining hero’s journeys in as broad strokes as possible.
The arts, of course, aren’t immune to this phenomenon. If the act of artistic creation always carries in it a vein of narcissism, producing art in the internet age has only intensified the “look at me!” component of media production. And if most author’s first books aren’t prone toward giving shape to some kind of self-worship, then they are likely villainizing, in stark terms, the world around the author instead.
What is immediately unique about Erin Hoover’s Barnburner—a poetry collection that is also, comfortably, a collection of essays, or short stories in free verse—is that the narrators in Hoover’s poems are deeply culpable. “The Lovely Voice of Samantha West,” which opens the collection, seems at first to condemn the dehumanizing mundanity of call-center jobs, until the narrator suggests that it is only themselves who are too inhuman to participate in this specific corporate culture. “Her voice on the phone had a human response for me,” the narrator says of their last conversation with a coworker, “but I was unable to explain why I left.”
Throughout the book, in fact, there is a subtle (or occasionally unsubtle) suggestion that while the world is deeply flawed, the poems’ protagonists are no better. “My poems are / a murder story,” says Hoover in “Reading Sappho’s Fragments.” “Clear immediately that / someone will kill / someone else.”
“As I think about these poems, I think about the poetics of anger,” writes Kathryn Neurenberger in Barnburner’s introduction. As she suggests, Hoover’s toolkit—or perhaps her palette—is a layering of many different veins of anger. And while anger as a linguistic device might often feel easy, or lacking in complexity, the poems in Barnburner are at their most potent when Hoover displays her ability to shift her rage midstream.
A cutting example plays out in the short stanzas of “The Evacuation Shadow,” describing a youth spent near Three Mile Island as “a child pinned to the evacuation / shadow my parents didn’t have the means to leave.” Many of Hoover’s poems are localized in specific geographies, and for her narrators (which may be, but do not have to be, Hoover herself) these locations seem to be akin, always, to traumas tied to landscape. “I imagine someone / pulled my infant body close / as the countryside emptied / with its fear around us,” Hoover says, but a stanza later this distinctly American horror spins outward into the larger world of nuclear devastation: “in the still-standing block of apartments of Ukraine […] Chernobyl permanently blights / the Soviet breadbasket.”
For many it would be provocative enough to end here, having painted a unified portrait of modern societies living in the shadow of environmental chaos. But in the central movement that defines Barnburner, Hoover then aims her criticism inward: “I began to leave the place / I lived from the day I was / born,” she says. The self-preservation she describes isn’t valorous—instead, she suggests, it perpetuates an ignorance, and a damning ineffectualness. “Like adults / we children pretended the cornstalks / could be fine,” Hoover says. “No choice but to count / our own bodies as safe to roam / inside, protected in our skin.”
Hoover’s voice is neither indulgent nor romantic; its “poetics of anger” have no room for either. Instead there is sometimes tiredness, or resignation—but more often it is the simple, plainspoken presentation of discomforting ideas that forms the central aesthetic. “With Gratitude for Those Who Have Made This Book Possible,” the book’s penultimate poem, encapsulates this simply: “I’ve got a story for you where I’m the asshole / and the other assholes in it are my friends.”
No discussion of a protagonist’s poverty, defamation, or existential helplessness goes without comparison to those who’ve got it worse. The most venomous screeds against former lovers, the cruelty of strangers, or even a lowly ATM mugger are still woven through with the idea that everyone plays their part in creating the larger murk of unhappiness and desperation that is, more and more, becoming the real shared truth of life in our modern world.
Hoover’s most obviously autobiographical poems often reflect on the dual nature of anger, especially as it relates to womanhood. At one end, Hoover seems to describe her rage and willingness to enter conflict as a burden beyond her control: “Sometimes one person is the gravitational center / of shit going wrong,” she suggests in “Recalibration,” describing an encounter with violent young men in a bodega in Brooklyn. But despite the fact that many of her poems describe a life lived in “crosshairs”—running through from her would-be attackers, or plagued in the virtual world of online stalkers as “a human zip file”—Hoover still acknowledges guilt that she doesn’t do enough to combat injustice where she sees it. “More often then I’ll admit, I pass by an instance where I know I should stop […] and I go on past,” she says, describing scenes of people in need at the end of “Recalibration.” “And though I sometimes circle back, by then, / of course, by then, / whoever it was is gone.”
The opening of Barnburner explains the title as a Dutch term for “one who destroys all to get rid of a nuisance.” What is perhaps most impressive is that Hoover plays the part of both nuisance and destroyer with equal nuance, privileging neither, weighing judgment on both. “The wheel stops for us,” she says in “The Valkryie,” the collection’s closing poem. There is little doubt who “us” refers to. In Hoover’s poems, we’re all lashed to the same wheel.