This is the Lightness by Rachel Barton, reviewed by Louise Barden

Book cover for Rachel Barton's "This is the Lightness." White blossoms on a black background, white and yellow lettering.

The Poetry Box, 2022, 87 pages, $18.00
ISBN: 978-1-956285-17-8
Available at The Poetry Box and Amazon

In This is the Lightness,her new collection from The Poetry Box,Rachel Barton takes us on a spiritual and imaginative journey, starting with her narrator’s youthful sense of a universe so small…I wonder it should matter at all  (“Sometimes My Universe”) through times of change and loss into a mature sense of acceptance and joy. 

From the book’s first section, “Sometimes My Universe”––where Barton describes living in the shadow of an Alaskan glacier or playing ball with her dog––to its end, the poems’ vivid imagery and detailed descriptions introduce us to an interior life that considers even the smallest particulars of the world around her. The first poems reflect a young person’s landscape-view of the world, in which the narrator is primarily an actor who sees such details as part of that environment around her––like blue gills of river trout and sap rising in a rush (“Mobius in a Dream”). 

Later, Barton uses similes and metaphors to turn such simple descriptions into something more than tangible facts. For example, she describes branches festive with clumps of moss and red leaves like torn ribbons (“Girl in the Woods”), and like a dragon on fir/behind the rugged contour/of our sleeping volcano (“From Knik Arms to Potters March”).

While the book’s beginning creates a picture of a person who is contented with a somewhat mundane life in the beautiful world around her, the second section of poems, “Owning my Tribe,” moves beyond the minutia of daily living to the narrator’s rising awareness of an imagined interior life that includes more than simple natural beauty.

In one poem, Barton imagines the world of a woman who becomes a Bear; in another, she gives us the experience of a woman whose animal totem transforms her into an insect. Here she takes us with her to a land where we can stand beneath a waterfall and shiver….[or] lie under an array of crystals (“Abadania”).

As her narrator’s world becomes increasingly complex, so do her poems.  Punctuation is often spare while Barton also takes imaginative leaps to conjoin images that initially seem unrelated. The results invite readers to share a vision in which imagination [is] the spark that flares brightest (“Guys Take You”). These are poems by a writer who clearly is well-versed in her craft.

The book’s section called “Slow Crossing,” describes how the aging and deaths of parents, friends, and loved ones inevitably brought Barton’s narrator (as it brings us all) to a realization of her own mortality. Barton succeeds in making us part of this transition through her careful selection of words in poems that are both personal and universal. In the poem aptly named, “Only a Matter of Time,” for example, she admits being too struck with the beginning myself/to anticipate the final chapter.

Finally in the last chapter, “The Sky is Falling,” Barton shares the experience of gradually coming to an internal understanding of our own body’s frailty and eventual end. She dissects the cause and early-morning advent of a migraine headache in “On Employing Einstein’s Special Relativity” ––a prose poem tightly woven into a block of aligned text. She describes the emptiness of “Recovery”

                        when the world retreats…

                        in the vacuum of a very long outgoing wave

                        its inhale sucking everything from you….

                        ….[until] you have to ask

                        will the world rush to your door again….

And in “Falling Out,” a sudden loss of confidence in a long-held belief causes her to find myself weeping/my body slightly altered…. And, she has to admit, there is no going back/we cannot unlearn what is true.

As Barton begins to see she must imagine something new in “Though Darkness Surrounds” and Get over it in “The Sky is Falling,” she takes us with her, learning how to accept the world, with its frailties and our own. And she begins to ask herself what she will do with the years she has.

She guides us along her path to a mature life where––in spite of pain, loss, and difficulty––she tells us

                        …. not to say I even know what

 the big questions are but I’m anticipating the rush anyway the

                        surprise and then the laughing like champagne bubbles rising from

                        deep within my belly…. (“Slaphappy”)

And we discover that, in poem after poem, Barton’s vivid and creative imagery, skillfully expressed, has made us ready to laugh with her out of sheer joy.

Reviewer’s Bio

Louise Cary Barden’s poetry has won the Calyx Lois Cranston Prize, Oregon Poetry Association award, the Harperprints chapbook competition, and others. Her poems have appeared in such journals as pan-dem-ik, humana obscura and Cathexis Northwest. She was also Associate Editor of Timberline Review, Volume 11. Barden is a self-avowed tree-hugger whose career indecisiveness has taken her from teaching English at three universities to writing advertising and editorial copy and managing marketing programs. In 2017 she re-settled in Corvallis, Oregon, after forty years in North Carolina.

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