Beneath the electric bill, discarded beer caps and spilled ashtray in the disaster I call my car, Impure—a collection of poetry by Whittier College prof and local poet Tony Barnstone—beckons days after I put it down to focus on the more immediate details of my so-called life. The book bothers me through the Orange Crush and onto the stagnant southbound 5. Is it good poetry? What is good poetry? What do I know about good poetry? Why is this collection of words still pirating my attention?
Maybe it's because I'm on my way to hear "Of What Use Is Poetry?"—a discussion at UC Irvine featuring Mark Strand, the nation's former poet laureate. When I get to UCI, though, Strand doesn't offer a definitive line on good poetry; instead, he explains all that poetry isn't, and does so in a rhetorical conversation with his former student, a fellow named Dick.
Dick engages, in a slightly twisted yet meaningful way, with Strand's reductive discourse. It's one of those intellectually stimulating literary dialogues that leave you thinking, "I don't know Dick." Which is, perhaps, the point. Then an Impure thought hits me: Barnstone's poetry is for people who don't know Dick; people who rarely, if ever, discuss the absence of metonymic subtextuality in contemporary poetry with a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet like Strand; people who have no desire to find a "use" for poetry but hope to discover a naked energy compatible with the current of their lives.
In that Dickless sense, Impure is good poetry—good because it moves you. Maybe not the way erect nipples on a warm day move you, maybe not even the way breezes through the short hairs move you, but in a way not too far from it.
Barnstone's talent is his ability to find intimacy in an array of realities. In "Sick," the poet reaches directly out of the frame: "I know I'm speaking to you in a poem/though we're not to admit it . . ./But aren't you a little sick too/of that particular fantasy? Let's be honest/. . . What if we dropped the charade. . . ."
Subtly reminiscent of Strand's work—which is itself an unmistakable conduit of Wallace Stevens' legacy in its easy mix of abstraction and experience—Barnstone touches his audience where it lives. Impure communicates awe in "Breasts" ("Breasts make me happy./I don't know what it is./. . . I know they're marketed to us,/. . . but they're eclectic"); defines sustained passion in "Concussion," in which the poet is knocked out with a single nipple; contemplates the pleasure of anatomical function in "Joy of Pissing" and "Pissing in Public"; and conveys the tangible sting of rejection through "Pure Poetry," in which the poet's father pisses on the creativity of the pissing poems.
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Before anyone starts to draw a breath of that gender-bias shit, check out Barnstone's intricate exploration of environmental and social deterioration in poems like "The Dump" (with its "thousand-year monument of a styrofoam cup") and "A California Couple," in which the poet, hearing the thump of the neighbors' domestic dispute, finds himself "judging the relative weights/of a woman's body and a toaster-oven" and wonders if he should call the cops. Breathe in the beauty and brutality in "Seen From a Window."
Not everyone will connect to some of the Midwestern flavor or the ethereal vibe of "The Video Arcade Buddha." Still, poetry like "No Vacancies" finds intimacy in places never felt.
Unexpectedly, Impure moved me to a oneness with the next morning's drive-time crawl and an appreciation for the beauty of my chaotic car, even if I can't find the envelope for the electric bill. Pick it up. Let it move you.
Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone. University Press of Florida, 1999. 96 pages. $10.95 softcover.