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Leaning Against the Sun.

Precision and effectiveness also characterize the work of Gerald Barrax, whose Leaning Against the Sun is a fine book that displays very well the poet's depth and range. The title of Barrax's book is taken from the last line of Emily Dickinson's poem "I taste a liquor never brewed." Both poets' work is filled with freshness and rhythm. However, Barrax works with rhythm only periodically, whereas it was a primary tool for Dickinson. Like Pinkie Gordon Lane, Barrax has weaved history, family, and place into his poetry. Yet Barrax's poems in Leaning Against the Sum, his fourth collection, evoke both despair and hope.

In the opening poem, "Eagle. Tiger. Whale.," for example, Barrax brings forth a host of emotions while recording an act of violence: No one can explain what I've seen, a slim black woman lying on her back, red geyser pumping from her open mouth, she stares into the ceiling's yellow eye. I see her from her right, the foot of the brass bed, my head three feet high. Someone screams "Lord God Lord God he done shot the woman" while the soft splash, splash. I stand so calm, seeing, until somebody yells, "Git that chile outta here." Who knows who knows how I got there from next door, visiting Aunt Annie over in Gadsden, for neither mother nor father is there to tell me "Forget it." At first sight, this passage appears as though it could be prose, and the lines have the natural rhythm of speech. The speaker fully and accurately describes the results of an act of violence. Barrax's diction is plain and simple, yet there are many details in these lines, as well as throughout Leaning Against the Sun. The reader can easily follow the poem's progression without confusion. The admonition to "Git that chile outta here" is genuine, and sheds light on the character.

In "Domestic Tranquility," Barrax contrasts his daughters' lives with the life of a rabbit: When I strung my clothesline from the post where the rosebush fans over the redwood fence, I was careful not to scare the rabbit away, come to the yard for clover, crouching on the cool ground along the fence among the mint that's grown high as my knee; it sits in there still and breathless with revelation, the laundry like sweet apparitions flapping overhead, my presence humming through the intoxicating leaves. I wish that kind of myth to give my daughters, as free of cruelty and lies as the vision of this small waiting animal. Meter and detail are trademarks of Barrax's poetry, and the first two lines of this stanza are quite metrical and pleasing to the ear. However, the lines that comprise the stanza are loose blank verse, alternating from three to seven feet in length; the fourth and tenth lines have the feminine ending as part of their metrical system. Barrax achieves eloquence in "the laundry like sweet apparitions flapping overhead"; the simile is fresh and works well in its comparison. And yet the last three lines evoke a sense of longing.

In "Whose Children Are These?" Barrax begins with questions that make the reader reconsider his/her own children:" Whose children are these? / Who do these children belong to?" These questions indicate a certain human sensibility. When the poem moves beyond the questions and into memory, the speaker reveals the history of slavery: For no certain purpose. He heard about the woman, Margaret Gamer, in spite of the white folks' silence. How she killed two of hers To keep them from being taken back; Killed herself after the others were taken back Anyway. So she saved Two. He couldn't save his Ellen and Henry. Who do these belong to? A powerful narrative, the poem progresses smoothly to the question "Who do these belong to?" How could one not consider what is at hand here?

It is no accident that Barrax succeeds in juxtaposing slavery to the past decade's "racism and murder," which still go on. However much these two senseless plagues reflect our times, there is hope in Barrax's poetry. Witness the pain and suffering in the second stanza of the poem: But we have not rescued them altogether; we moved them through one dimension, from one killing field to another on history's flat page, 1850s' slavery to 1980s' racism and murder. Baraka has told us "They have made this star unsafe, and this age, primitive," and it is so. I have stood over each child sleeping and looked at each child and wanted to know who decides to break our hearts one by one by one. Again we see that history dominates in such a way that the various images in the poem can only remain lodged in our memory.

History functions in a Barrax poem to somehow bring meaning to present time. And it doesn't matter if a poem is about family and history as long as the poem itself moves beyond the personal. For example, in the poem "Theology," we witness a turn from a short family anecdote to something more: Driving five-year-old Dara to school December 15, she tells me that God was visible when he created the world, but that made him tired, so he died, and went to heaven, then he became invisible. Suddenly I understand Lao-Tzu, Plato, Augustine and Aquinas, Barth, Tillich, all those guys-- the whole thing. While often syntactically simple, Barrax's poetry can be intellectually demanding.

There are other fine poems in Barrax's collection, like "Epigraphs," "War Film: Dying Forever," "Optimum Distance," and "Cello Poem," which make this carefully assembled book whole. "Cello Poem" is the most ambitious piece in the book. Written in seven parts, it includes two villanelles with unpredictable rhyme written in masterful iambic pentameter.
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Author:Moore, Lenard D.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
Words:956
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