Barnburner (Elixir Press, 2018) by Erin Hoover
“Barnburner is not your grandfather’s apple orchard,” the introduction to Barnburner states, and this was as good an image as any for me to begin to understand the thrust of these glowing poems. Growing up in the 70’s in the liminal space of the downtown border of a large urban city in upstate New York and the rural farms and fields that immediately surrounded it, I could tell you from experience that most apple orchards had a barn in them—and that the increasing neglect and poverty of rural communities meant that the barn was indeed likely falling down or burned.
Meanwhile, I watched my downtown also deteriorate: the buses running less frequently, the potholes getting deeper, the rusting little park I played in given a coat of paint only in election years. The increasing centralization of wealth we have seen come to fruition now, that has hollowed out our middle class and decimated our quality and length of life, began back then in my childhood. Erin Hoover’s poems in Barnburner, moving amongst a gravelly handful of urban and rural locations and speakers in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, gives us a faceful of this fact first hand.
Written in a free verse that dispenses with any pretension, the poems rely instead on strong infrastructure—stuttering line breaks and carefully placed stanzas—to convey the harsh, unblinking light of their world. Barnburner explicitly rejects the academic and ephemeral, what is sometimes mistaken as the poetic aesthetic itself. “My poems are / a murder story, clear immediately that someone will kill / someone else,” Hoover writes in “Reading Sappho’s Fragments.” Murder comes in many guises here, from men who exploit women taught to love them unconditionally, to an endless line of uninspiring temp jobs, to opioid addiction, to the slow acidic shame of being a client at a food cupboard: “…the mass of years carting home / jars of peanut butter and succotash.” The speakers navigate these murders with varying amounts of bloodshed—some belonging to others, much to themselves—and demand that the reader not look away: to “…not be satisfied with our long pauses, if you can’t hear / my heart, at least unstop your ears / for my profanities.”
Ultimately, this is the central strength of Barnburner: these are the voices of real people saying real things. Their music comes just as much from this knife-like plainsong as it does from the precise, daily imagery they hold: dirty jeans, chainsaws, Coors beer, mini-malls, the Port Authority Bus Station.
“With Gratitude to Those Who Have Made This Book Possible” may be the most naked voice of them all and the one that allows the reader to approach the poems from a second, poignant possibility: that is it the same speaker in all of these pieces. She an intelligent, college-educated young writer from a hard scrabble past, in recovery from many things, painfully rubbing elbows in a park in Brooklyn with both peers who have gotten a better ticket in the American lottery of who-owns-what, and folks even more “ordinary” than the speaker’s limited privilege allows her to be—“frying their plantains, circling the clumpy field / in a game of pick up soccer.” As in all of these poems, the writer never exempts herself from her knowledge of how our desires and delusions are shaped by whom our society tells us we should be, allowing us a clear view into the complexity of creating art about systems of privilege that the writer herself is steeped in. “I…find I’ve been the plus one at birthdays / for Brooklyn literati…” she confesses with remorseful specificity, before compelling herself to add a couple of lines later, “Of course I was dying to go.” The question Barnburner asks is: how can she—how can we—ever stop dying to go?
Barnburning is one solution. A barnburner, as described in the book’s epigraph, is “One who destroyed all in order to get rid of a nuisance.” These poems are witness to our raging, hopeless quest for this kind of order: the men who destroy the nuisance of women who want equality; the powerful who destroy the nuisance of the poor who want justice; the capitalism that destroys the nuisance of our irrevocable need for the earth—and in the most guttural irony, the lost who seek peace and understanding in this mess, and in the process destroy themselves.
Or perhaps not. “With Gratitude…” is in fact the penultimate poem of the collection. The last, “The Valkyrie,” tells one last story of a play for power in the form of a man attempting to rob a woman in the vestibule of an ATM. Without spoiling its resolution—and how wonderful, that the narrative power of these poems is such that they can be spoiled—I will say only that compassion makes the difference in the final stanzas of this book.
“Don’t tell anyone, please,” the robber says. In Barnburner we can be grateful that the poet did not agree.