Review of John G. Barr

John G. Barr

Grace: The Adventures of Ibn Opcit and Opcit at Large.

Red Hen Press, 2013

$24.95 (hardback) $14.95 (paperback)


Red Hen Press published John Barr’s two-volume epic poem The Adventures of Ibn Opcit in hardback and paperback editions in 2013. The first volume, Grace, appeared initially in 1999, published by Story Line Press, and it was performed onstage in 2008 at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago in 2008. The second volume, Opcit at Large, was published for the first time in 2013.

            John Barr introduces “Grace” with a note to the reader on his language: "The voices in Grace use the freedoms of Caribbean-like speech to get away with murder." It is revealing phrasing. Derek Walcott’s Omeros is presumably an inspiration for Barr, though it is not acknowledged, but anyone who has read it should realize that the skillful use of creole words, phrases, or rhythms of speech, far from "getting away with murder," involves a delicate and precise manipulation of language to evoke specific ideas, times, and places. The persistent assumptions echoed here that creoles are somehow "made up" or simplified forms of speech have been repeatedly debunked by linguistic studies that have shown them to be as complex and structured as other languages, but this has evidently passed Barr by. Quoting the comment of the "lovely" (Barr's word) Anthony Burgess that "black English has the right idea" is apparently meant to reassure us that he means well in a patronizing sort of a way, but it does nothing to excuse either the sort of unthinking prejudice that is evident in the original statement or the wholesale slaughter that follows.

            In any case, Barr’s "invented dialect" bears little relation to any particular form of speech; its main innovation seems to be to replace "the" with "de," "that" with "dat" and so on, an affectation that is apparently only maintained when Barr remembers. John Berryman describes his character Henry “(not the poet, not me)” in Dream Songs as “a white American in early middle age, sometimes in blackface”. “Mr Bones”, Henry’s black alter-ego is inspired by Thomas D. Rice’s “jumping” Jim Crow character, who lent his name to the segregation laws of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While Henry’s alter ego serves as a chthonic counterpoint to Henry, using the racial bifurcation of the United States, as well as the key role of the interlocutor in minstrel performances, to emphasize the contrast between the two, Ibn Opcit’s ridiculous accent only really makes Barr look infantile.

Barr also makes up words. This is also explained in the opening note with the aid of another comparison, to "Elizabethan English – Shakespeare’s English," with its freedom "to impress a noun into service as a verb, and to choose sense over syntax". Incidentally, it is not altogether clear to me why Barr thinks the former feature is restricted to earlier usages of English (have you never googled, Mr. Barr? Do you not text?). As Barr presumably intends, Joyce comes to mind as another writer of epics who abandoned linguistic strictures in favor of dense wordscapes.  The trouble with Barr’s experiments with language is that rather than proving evocative, his phrasing often serves to obfuscate meaning or even feeling. What, for example, should we make of, "the ambulances all spell backwards”? 

            Barr owns up to the nonsense, of course, with passages like these: "'Inveigle me,' she will say, 'wid word clusters devoid of sense'." So—allowing myself be inveigled as far as possible—I’ll admit that some of Barr’s stream of consciousness serves to faintly amuse to about the level of reading one of those nonsensical poems people write on the fridge with magnetic plastic letters. In the same spirit as one might rearrange those letters on a friend’s fridge into something mildly insulting, it is tempting to try to pick apart some of Barr’s word-clusters and use them against him. For a start, what is the name of our protagonist "Ibn Opcit" supposed to communicate to us other than "son of repeated reference," and how much more apt could such a title be for such an utterly derivative work? I also rather like "He writes in physically eruptive sentences/ His is an ego that walks on all fours and hunts at night." My rearranged fridge letters would say that Barr’s sentences erupt like pustules picked at by an over-earnest adolescent poring over books he mythologizes, but from which he is too distracted by his unsatisfied libido to really understand.

            But let us stop leaning on the fridge and try to discern some meaning in the adventures of Ibn Opcit. Following Berryman’s "Dream Song 43", the "Overruth Hearings" opens: "Out. Out. Out./ ‘Oyez. Oyez./ Now is this Court of the Carib Kingdom of our Grace in motion…."  And we stand with our hero in the dock of a courtroom that reeks of kangaroo and doubles as a stage-set for some postcolonial parody as bewigged officials—"your Onlyness," "his Gruffness"—sweat in a torrid air. Ibn Opcit appears as the witness to some obscurely-described debauchery in the "big house" ("he treat her like a sudden rug," "he produce his produce like a corporate salami") leading up to a felony. Ibn Opcit himself ends up accused of crimes including producing poetry about oxygen under the name of Daniel Ownyore. We get another peep through the window into a scene that mingles muddled exoticism with colonial fantasy: "He proffer de wrinkled ogive. She dress de lingam./ He raise his flag on gunboat thighs/ dat have no sovereign interest to protect." And then Opcit, "dis kaffir a stupid jongleur" is taken off to "marinate in jail."  The opening section reminded me a bit of Will Self’s ‘The Butt," but whereas Self’s postcolonial dystopia is grotesque, Barr’s is just kind of silly.   

            From jail, we are treated to the "Eclogues." While Virgil’s Eclogues were ten, Barr presents us with six: "Genesises"; "I Been to New York City. Once"; "The Opposite Number"; "The Death of the Appreciator"; "Eclogue of Afters"; and "The Wings of Man." There is an intermission, during which readers are invited to dine at the Selective Pâté (including a menu offering "Sanctimonious Salad: A simple salad, made with an effort served with a sneer" and other such facetious delicacies). In Virgil’s Eclogues, a shepherd from the edges of the empire travels to its center and finds Rome in revolution. Barr echoes Virgil’s invocations of the far-flung reaches of the empire, "burning Libya," "the Scythian steppes," "Cretan Oaxes," "Or Britain, from the whole world sundered far" with his scenes of America "bathed in the trade winds of humanity at its most." America takes on the looks and mannerisms of other places, "Under the eraserless sun of the South,/ in a clamor of heat dat pass for India"; "People of the Northwest I am told/ do not exist and California live in Japan"; "America? Home of Costa Rica Étan."  Omens and portents abound in the America that Ibn Opcit surveys: "If, on the other hand, you a shaman/ in the Northern Territories, you build a fire/ and wave a blanket over it. In 14 days/ dis will be a blizzard in New York." Barr’s America is a dystopia riven by rival false prophets.  Nonsense seems to be the only response: "To the Creationists’ colony I say 'Horse Nanny'."

            Several characters with laborious comical names appear briefly in this landscape before dropping back into pointless silence. We meet Engarde Monocutter, poetry editor for the New York telephone directory, who pronounces on the duty of poetry to be "hurricanal: a quiet-seeking eye/ in the midst of gale-force disturbances," while regarding modern poetry as "a toxic waste dump."  Some poets of whom Barr evidently approves also appear in the mix; Walt Whitman and Byron get name-checks. Barr has a little poke at politicians and academics. Witness Spillman Sponneker, who left his job as clerk in Ladies Underludes to seek office. "Like TooLoose-Lautrec he promise incompatibility," and he wishes to be remembered as the president who got the nation to wear seatbelts. The “Contemptible” Bede leads a bestial flock to the promised land. The smuttiness of the first passages resurfaces frequently. In some cases, sexual licentiousness connects to political action: "Pretty soon birds be jerking off all over de woods,/ dey appear to be considerin’ riot." But in "the Opposite Number" we are treated to an extended copulation with one Amber Wunt, "For brains she at de poverty line,/ but from an early age she exhibit sexual comprendo." This is accompanied by comments that reach a level of misogyny that is breathtaking despite their nonsensicality: "If you assume dat ladies all be consenting adults—/ 'You know better, you just forgot to ask'—/ dat can be a chaotic embrace, dat can be known as rape." Racism is similarly lightly veiled by gibberish: "de moon wear colors of menace—umber, hamburger –/ so swarthy you wait for it to turn for de profile shot".

            With the "Death of the Appreciator," we arrive back in official circles, in a sort of theocratic state with a capitalist bent. For all the empty hotels buildings and kickbacks we might be back in the Caribbean, but we also get something of a sense of the court of an Asiatic despot as depicted in an English court masque. Like Ibn Opcit, Esperge de Hogney is convicted of being a poet and a dreamer. After being subjected to cartoonish torture that turns into spiritual interrogation, he is strung up from the rigging of a ship. 

            There is something potentially interesting here in the echoes here of the colonial fears of the New World as suspect, corrupt, torrid, hybrid: a land in which religious extremists found refuge. It is just difficult to be sure whether Barr thinks all that differently himself. Steve Evans (in "Free (Market) Verse," The Baffler, 17, 2006) quotes Barr’s pronouncement to an interviewer that poets should be "imperialists… I think they should be importers; I think they should be exploiters of external experience, without apology. I don’t see that kind of thinking very often in the poetry world." There may perhaps be good reasons Barr does not encounter such thinking all that often. Fortunately the majority of people invested in art of any kind have the good sense to recognize that the sort of wholesale looting of other cultures followed by their display in oft inappropriate and sometimes downright offensive ways that imperialism embraced was not the best idea. It does express what Barr is doing here quite well, though. Evans aptly captures the relationship between Barr’s right-wing politics and his views about poetry. As head of the Poetry Foundation, John Barr, a Republican and former investment banker oversaw a donation of $100 million to Poetry magazine from Ruth Lilly, whose fortune came from a pharmaceutical company with questionable ethical practices. This is part of a bigger struggle for poetic territory at the center of the empire. As such, it is ground that I who, like Ibn Opcit, have “Been to New York. Once” will leave to others.

            To return to the basic question—can "imperialists" make good poets?—perhaps. Personally, I harbor a fairly intense dislike for John Donne—whose sermon to the Virginia Company proclaims the right of the imperialists to claim any land they considered empty, abandoned, or "derelict." My distaste mainly stems from my imagining that Donne would have been a smothering but selfish lover addicted to reveling in his own histrionics. Nonetheless, I will admit that he is a good poet. Barr is not.

            In assessing Barr’s work it is insufficient to fall back on the question of who can write what. Rick Moody, whose off-beat Americascapes I do enjoy, writes, "John Barr’s Grace is an incredibly risky poem about white American consciousness in the instant of attempting sympathy with black American (in this case Caribbean) consciousness." While I disagree with Moody’s appreciation of the work, it is true that we cannot deny John Barr the right to try on a different literary skin; this of course is the essence of the empathy that a work of art or literature should enable for its readers as well as its author. Barr’s work does touch on some interesting issues-- modern religion, work, and relationships, prison populations, America’s past and future as the great melting pot, center of an empire riven with divisions at its core,. Nonetheless, it is hard to come away from Grace with the sense of any "sympathy" on the part of its author. Rather, despite his earthy insights, it is had not to feel a sense of revulsion for Ibn Opcit, with his scatological dialogue and prurient views on women, as well as for the America that he represents. Whether it is acceptable to take on another identity is one question. Whether it is then permissible to use that identity to spout racist and misogynistic views, however garbled, is another.

            "Opcit at Large" is the sequel to "The Adventures of Ibn Opcit." It opens in "the Afterdammit." Barr wants to be Dante now--and just in case we didn’t realize, he gets a name-check from a demon: "(We had Dante here a while ago. Was he surprised!)". The afterlife is not really so different from the dystopia that came before. We are treated to a similar mix of muddled exoticism and smuttiness: "Acertain lady, avid to do the silly slant / invited me in for a round of polar bipod / She had just asked me, 'How big is your shatska' / when in walked the man of the house with a sushi knife." Ibn Opcit is back, although thankfully Barr has dropped the faux-Caribbean dialogue. 

            To have another bash at explaining what happens: in the "Afterdammit" two burnt and naked souls converse, wondering whether "it’s the wrong Creation /… a flawed, discarded prototype." A demon comes to torment them. The demons, like the human protagonists in last volume, have witticisms for names. The souls first accuse the demon of presiding over "a diminished empire," then discuss whether the demons are "a figment of our febrile minds." The demon enlightens them on the nature of mankind, in response to the question of whether man is matter or spirit: "Out of webs of straw, bales of bone. One head/ but two hands…/ …His ragged interior is like a planet’s—all flum and guano, crag and heat." More on matter and spirit --"a soul/ is a set of passions projected through a great deal of time." We get hints at Marvell’s "Dialogue between the Body and the Soul" and of course Descartes, but again Barr seems to be being referential for the sake of it rather than making any particular insightful contribution to this eternal debate. The demon’s torment consists of the two souls eating one another’s vomit--in another descent into the merely foul. Another insult that is tempting to turn back on Barr is the "sense of humor as infectious as rust." 

            The souls are confronted with their own identities: one of them being Opcit, the other "Apotheosis Combe." In fact it seems that each of the souls has had several past identities: Combe was previously "Publico Phletitis, a noble, of Roman nose. /  And so on, back through history./ Malthus the Malshapen, The Necromancer Grimm… You were, for a thousand years at least, a series of Churchmen, all of them fat." Meanwhile, Opcit has escaped "on a flying machine!"  The wretched souls play true or false. Soul 1 reveals his previous name--Flavian Wyoming--and gives a biography which has a sort of evolutionary bent: "I sang the body eclectic. The mammalian overpoise./ I sang of potency and act, essence and being." The reference is to Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” but Barr clearly does not join with Whitman’s joyous embrace of humanity in all its fleshiness. Some dinosaurs.  Then "I was a man of the homoveldt variety./ And I was unstoppable, ever the lover/ of the furry female underfold." The souls discuss the tedium of marriage and the location of lust. Is a man separated from the world by the length of his dick or "as close to the world as the length of his dick," the souls wonder. In either case, I get pretty tired by this point of contemplating the "springy male necessity" despite the "spongy needs" attributed to my kind. The springy and spongy actually do encapsulate something about Barr’s poetry, though, with its obsession with the bodily in the most basic sense. Despite all the talk of the body and soul, the divine spirit doesn’t get a look in here, nor, come to that, do the animal passions: like Ibn Opcit on earth, the souls’ discussion of love and lust makes them sound like fleshy automatons programmed with platitudes: "After all,/ for her the body is the baby carriage of the soul." It is difficult at this point not to feel that Barr has simply joined "Onan" (who name means "vigorous," oh the hilarity…), who is introduced at the end of the chapter merely to wank.

            In the next section, we join Ibn Opcit "en Afrique" (Barr sprinkles a little French throughout both volumes, just for decoration). We are in "the capital of Usurpia, Africa’s newest republic, on streets torn by civil war." We get a firsthand report from CNN’s correspondent on the ravaged streets of Soros. Ibn Opcit appears, having apparently been thrown up by the sea from the depths. Squalor: "The dead licking the dead." An interview with the dictatorial President Idi Nakumbo. In Scene 2, Ibn Opcit gets appointed "Poet Lariat" for the new republic. Spillman Sponneker shows up again, now Vice President of the USA. Our bard introduces the new cabinet, who of course have comedy names: "Liverno Bootlace, Director of the Bureau of Infighting" and the like. In case we weren’t sure where Barr’s darke Africa had sprung from we get a Kurtz reference. Much politico spin-speak. Another little poke at academics: "the fart-flowers of civilization." The American delegation intervenes dubiously in the new republic, offering Nakumbo Guantanamo as a personal fiefdom.   

            Scene 4 serves up some more pretentious-sounding though nonsensical dishes, asking "Is your stomach blundering towards its anal finale?" Accompanying is a discussion of African "Presidents for life"—Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe are clearly the baddies we are meant to have in mind. Sponneker departs with deal struck, leaving the poet behind. By Scene 5, Ibn and the CNN journalist are back in prison. They discuss poetry, and we get some more pronouncements that are apparently meant to define Barr’s project: "Writing a poem/ is a fiercely independent act. The language/ of a new poem will sound a new and savage/ Flamenco – it will have the sound of a sound/ escaping from sense." Next, Ibn Opcit owns up to being a virgin, and the journalist takes him to bed.

            "Ibn Opcit at Large" ends with ‘The Last Cosmonaut, a Christmas Tale." It begins with an article from 1992 concerning the disintegration of the Soviet Union while Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev was in space. We then meet Ibn Opcit again, who has been bamboozled into boarding a Soviet rocket rather than the plane to Denver he was expecting. The Soviet Union has apparently decided to replace scientists with poets, whom they will use as "instruments of passion." Ibn Opcit’s heavenly exile allows him to survey the earth and its cast of miserable characters from his lofty vantage point. We see Africa, still dark and ungovernable, America rich but nervous, and finally the Caribbean, "his Aegean", appropriated of course from Walcott. As the Soviet Union disintegrates, our hero remains stranded in orbit. And there we leave him, looking down on this bleak and stereotypical vision of the world as Christmas arrives.      

            This volume pretty much rivals the last for its derivative subject matter, racist stereotypes, and misogyny. It is also just as tedious, derivative as the last volume, and the humor is equally puerile. Overall, I came away feeling rather as if I’d had an unwanted view under the raincoat of a dirty man in the park.

It should be clear by now that I regard Barr’s poem as inept and morally repugnant. But is this just me being “easily offended,” as Arthur Mortensen would have it in his review on Expansive Poetry & Music Online? After all, two reputable publishers took on the work, and plaudits come from the Library Journal, The New Yorker, Tom Wolfe, and Billy Collins as well as Rick Moody. However, none of these positive notices actually engage with the content or meaning of the poems, but tend to focus on Barr’s linguistic experiments, drawing the obvious comparisons with James Joyce and Anthony Burgess.  I can’t help but feel that Barr has succeeded in using his slew of referential wordplay to cover up the bleak, cruel, and misanthropic core of the poem. Planning for the debate that would have taken place in 1984 if not for Michel Foucault’s death, Jürgen Habermas cautioned against the neo-conservative turn that post-modernism and post-structuralism could enable with their dismissal of art’s duty to enlighten. Has this warning been realized in the blasé acclamation of works like John Barr’s The Adventures of Op Cit by the American poetic community?  


—Anna Winterbottom

Brighton, England