Sunday, January 5, 2020

Poem366: Barnburner by Erin Hoover

Barnburner by Erin Hoover

Barnburner by Erin Hoover (Denver, Colorado: Elixir Press, 2018)

Erin Hoover’s premier collection, Barnburner, is a lot to take in — like a lunch buffet when you’re used to packing a salad from home. These poems, mostly longish, mostly narrative, are personal ones, and they cover a long span of the poet’s real life, from her infancy in the shadow of Three Mile Island, through adolescence and adulthood and ultimately parenthood.

The neat trick of the collection is that while it’s both narrative and personal (interviews with Hoover bear this out), the reader never gets a sense of really knowing the speaker. We know some stories, or some parts of some stories, but we can’t say we have a relationship with the storyteller.

What does come through is a strong consciousness of class, one that is aware and carefully considered. The first poem in the book, “The Lovely Voice of Samantha West,” is a prose piece that begins, “I once worked at a call center. We weren’t allowed to talk, only script-read, and I thought: Can’t they automate this?” It turns out they could, and Samantha West is the name of the automated voice that can’t quite replace live operators because her uncanny-valley verisimilitude is too off-putting to those who are targeted: “Not eager to be fooled, people recoiled,” writes Hoover.

Instantly in the book, we understand Hoover’s bona-fides. She has worked in a job where she had to clock out to pee, and where “Every three hours on the dot I stood outside in a designated area and burned the high-nicotine cigarettes I’d bought.” In the end, the speaker quits, and she can’t explain why. The reader understands, though, after being walked through the life of a call center operator.

Another class-conscious poem is “The Evacuation Shadow,” a term, Hoover tells us in the book’s notes, that refers to a phenomenon where “far more residents will voluntarily leave the area surrounding a nuclear power plant following an accident than government officials adviseor plan.” This poem shows the speaker as a child near Three Mile Island, “pinned to the evacuation / shadow my parents didn’t // have the means to leave.” The Appalachian setting of the poem is compared to the meltdown site of Chernobyl, Ukraine, where “backyards are seeded with dolls / and basketball decades // flat.”

The poem concludes,

      But everyone
   has to live somewhere, so like adults,
   we children pretended the cornstalks
   could be fine after that, the river

   clear to its depths, still good
   to swim. No choice but to count
   our own bodies as safe to roam
   inside, protected in our skin.

It tends to be the poor who suffer in disasters, human-made or otherwise; since leaving requires means, often the poor are left to make do.

Another poem that is threaded with issues of class and privilege is “If You Are Confused About Whether a Girl Can Consent,” which is based on testimony of Emily Doe in the case against Brock Turner, the privileged Stanford swim team member who raped an unconscious fellow student and got a six-month sentence from a sympathetic judge. The title and epigraph of the poem connect to give nearly a full quote from Turner’s accuser: “Future reference, if you are confused about whether a girl can consent, see if she can speak an entire sentence.” The power differential in rape is compounded by the privilege of the perpetrator.

These are more than personal poems; they are poems of broader witness, and reading them is a clarifying and empowering act. Hoover says it best in “Reading Sappho’s Fragments”:

      It’s convention now
   after the tragic event to say,       There are no words.
         But I believe there are always
   words. There are, after all, bodies
             and they deserve words,
                   anybody’s and mine.

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