The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water by Cameron Barnett

I bought this book when Barnett visited my MFA program as a guest writer and lecturer a few years ago, and as I read these poems I heard them in his voice, which I remember as unassuming and powerful. They share a humility, an honest, open, vulnerable, questioning attitude. Their concern is not always about race, and in fact the poet (or the persona?) often resists or resents that that should be his expected work – which is fair – but there is a frequent question of whether there’s a right way to be Black, and some very strong writing in indignation and in rage at what it is to be Black in this country. “Post-Racial America: A Pop Quiz” is fiery. Several poems for Emmett Till are extraordinary and still just what we need. In “Notes on Cameron Barnett” (a bio, as it were, in poem form!), he writes: “Another black poet told me he liked my poem / for Emmett Till despite His story being overdone / For weeks I fantasized about switching out / the murderers’ names and putting in his.” Whew. I also appreciated the water theme throughout (as in the title, which is also the title of an astonishing, perfect poem), which can do so much good, diverse work. “Muriatic” does that strong, water-and-fire work, and then is immediately followed by “Bishop on a Slant,” which is about family. Likewise, “Firefly” honors the imperfect father-son relationship, finishing with this wisdom: “I want to take everything you think you taught me and teach you / what I have learned.”

I was also gratified to find again Barnett’s memorable contribution to Psalms for Mother Emanuel.

The book is structured in three parts, I and III each containing a number of individual poems, while II is marked ‘from The Bones We Lose.’ The design of these sections eludes me, and in general I find these poems harder to respond to than I did Duffy’s, that I reviewed recently. Inarticulate though I may be, there were many moments here that made me stop and think and whose beauty or truth stay with me. I had to move more slowly.

Beautiful.


Rating: 7 word problems.

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