STIGMATIZED, SILENCED EXPERIENCE: Mike Barnes’s Braille Rainbow and Shane Neilson’s New Brunswick candidly explore disability, abuse, physical pain, and mental illness. Both poets’ speakers struggle to love, or even to recognize, themselves:
the bitterest irony is the self
imitating itself at every level
until even emptiness fails to inhabit
writes Barnes; Neilson echoes,
of a man is told in two versions, one for ear
and one for hand. We come from the same
land but differ. Pain and love I do not understand.
Each may come closest to self-acceptance in his empathy with the downtrodden and forgotten—labourers, displaced nations, linguistic minorities, the homeless, the (in Barnes’s words) “shocked, drugged, poor.” Both speakers’ bodies vibrate in resonance with violences of the past:
impressions of you, Father, with my fist
writes Neilson, and Barnes echoes,
[you] blackened her memory with chars and twists
I have longed to visit upon you with fists.
And yet both poets write of attending with great compassion at the bedsides of the ill and dying. Neilson, a physician, is helpless beside his mother’s deathbed:
Voiceless, with a tube
in her throat, my mother wrote:
Will I live? . . .
Wheeze makes onomatopoeia
of witness. We. My answer a plural plea
of a rural, unwritten No.
Barnes, whose most recent previous book is a memoir of caring for his mother at the end of her life, could be writing the same scene in “Tangent: Lines by a Bed”:
In. Out? Spirit bubble in your throat the whole
globe’s turning. Hold it, floating, a moment longer.
In Barnes’s “Secure Ward,” it’s impossible to tell whether the speaker is the patient or the carer. Neilson’s speaker is the same:
On a good day, sense rejects us.
But then trajectory alters. Beds
change to church, riverbank, hospital.
These speakers both heal and are ill.
These books do not compete, but complement one another: if New Brunswick is a work of modernist erudition and collage, then Braille Rainbow is one of Buddhist acceptance and commitment to the here, the now. New Brunswick returns obsessively to the province of Neilson’s birth and practically exhausts its timeline, from 1534 to today. Braille Rainbow announces the futility of revisiting the past, seeking peace through a minute, scale-shifting attention to
this place made only of
particulars: one bed, one bureau, two scuffed
—allowing a tiny bug to become the
of some microscopic faith.
Without knowing one another’s projects, Barnes and Neilson imitate one another at odd moments. Both call out to ancestors literal and figurative; both poets’ broken speakers allow themselves to imagine redemption. But in the harshest cry, I’ve heard
the right word, love . . .
Think of care, love,
do we use that word,
do we use it enough?
And Barnes echoes,
Hold hands when one or both of you
is going into the dark, and hold hands when one
of you doesn’t come back. Keep holding hands
a little longer when an official- or kind-sounding voice
tells you it’s time to go, because it
isn’t quite. Not yet. Hold hands.
This spring, we at Biblioasis offer two painful, breaking poetic voices that despite themselves, somehow, hold one another’s hands.