Thomas Tyrrell reviews John Barnie‘s A Report to Alpha Centauri, sensing a misanthropic tone to the poetry collection.
Misanthropy in a poet is like stormy weather in a poem: dramatic, atmospheric, full of sound and light, and enjoyed with the comfortable knowledge that you don’t have to deal with the real thing. Many of the finest poets of recent times have been misanthropic to one degree or another: R.S. Thomas and Geoffrey Hill spring to mind. However you happen to feel about your fellow man, such poems are always preferable to balmy zephyrs and egotism.
John Barnie is the conscientious type of misanthrope who provides an opening address to the unwary reader, who may perhaps have mistaken A Report to Alpha Centauri for the collected works of Patience Strong:
these poems are out there with the chilly wind
and the absence of yellowhammers, with drills and wrecking balls
you may not want to read them, you may not want to take note,
walking away to the car which you open with the electric key
saying, not for me.
After this dire warning, it’s to his credit that he later relents so far as to let in a green woodpecker. In fact, the poems aren’t all as spare and brutal as the opening would have you believe. Some pay great attention to beauty, both as subject matter and in the artful crafting of phrases. There’s a generally elegiac tone, rising into snarling wrath at the prospect of a climate apocalypse that no one seems prepared to halt or avert, but able to speak in softer tones as well. Stand outs include a particularly well-crafted elegy for ‘a lean race horse of a poet’, and a vigorous note to self that begins ‘Already practicing to be an old man? that’s unacceptable’. Sometimes, even the wreckage and spoil of the Anthropocene can provoke him to aesthetic appreciation, as in ‘Follow the ‘Heritage’ sign’, a poem that begins ‘Have you been to the refrigerator dump’ and compares the heap of abandoned white goods to the statues on Easter Island.
Barnie speaks of our insignificance amongst an unthinkably vast universe whose physical laws have no loopholes for the human race, and our unbelievable folly in wrecking and continuing to wreck our only home and shelter in the cold emptiness of the cosmos. Yet he’s also one of those poets who make you wonder exactly how theatrical this persona is; there’s certainly something more than a little Byronic about it. In lines like ‘The Earth is going to the dogs but the dogs don’t care’, or in his fastidious recoil from the Circle of Brexity Hell that is, apparently, Clacton, you begin to wonder if he’s sending himself up on the sly. Tellingly, it’s an ambivalence that adds, rather than subtracts, from the experience of reading the collection.
Unfortunately, the one tonal misstep is also the title piece, and therefore impossible to ignore: the book closes with a short story that drags out that oldest of science fiction’s moral tales, the ‘it was the Earth all along’ twist. Misanthropy has proved invigorating throughout the rest of the collection, but the final piece serves only to show that even the most bracing cynicism is not immune to cliché.
A Report to Alpha Centauri by John Barnie is available now from Cinnamon Press.
Thomas Tyrrell is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.