Jessica Barksdale has taken a belief from William Carlos Williams that there “are no ideas but in things.” The poems in “Grim Honey” may be filled with abstract ideas or philosophical meanings, but only after we read of how they come from the objects, the things, that fill our lives. Things like photographs, candies, runny noses, parents, siblings, foreign cities, apartments and homes.
Upon my first reading of Barksdale’s poems, I felt like I was reading deeply personal poems, maybe a touch of Sylvia Plath. There is nothing wrong with personal poems, but after a second, third and, yes, a fourth reading, I recognized a shared human life.
These poems were about me, my family, my neighbors, people I’ve read about, deaths, regrets and much more. The poems come alive in their narrative approach. They have beginnings, middles and endings, but Barksdale’s endings are often the unexpected – just like real life.
‘We are here, and then we are not’
In “This is it,” she writes of her beliefs, her realities. “Figuring something out,/whatever it may be/This is what I believe/when I don’t believe/we are here,/and then we are not.”
“You Always Love the Broken Ones” speaks of “The shy, the friendless,” “Those with runny noses” and “Those who wear hearing aids.”
I wonder if the poet is writing about herself. Who are those? The poem’s meaning comes from its title and last couplet: “You want them all, the dripping, staggering mess, the wretched, the/wrecked, your shores awash, empty, waiting.” And each reader can fill in the part about who are the “those” we choose to love.
What do we “see” when we read poetry? A story? A lesson? One reason for rereading a poem is to make sure we understand what we’ve read the first time.
Barksdale’s “Older Woman with Dogs” begins with someone closely observing plants. “You try to ignore the blooms’ companions, the spent crones/crumbling toward death while the youngsters waggle in the breeze.” There is also another plant with parts “inappropriate, misplaced.”
The observer can see herself in every “misplaced” part of that plant, and it is “proof that nature supports the different.” It is a poem of unexpected comfort.
For many long-time residents of this area, the author’s name should ring several bells. Barksdale is not only the author of more than 15 novels, but she is also a retired professor of English at Diablo Valley College.
What a pleasure to encourage you to read her again. Barksdale’s use of language, her keen ability to see what often lies beneath a first viewing and her empathy for our human condition make her stand out as a poet worth reading.
Sunny Solomon holds an MA in English/Creative Writing, San Francisco State University. She is a book reviewer for “The Clayton Pioneer” and her poetry and other writing has been published in literary journals, one chapbook, In the Company of Hope and the collection, Six Poets Sixty-six Poems. She was the happy manager of Bonanza Books, Clayton, CA and Clayton Books, Clayton, CA. She continues to moderate a thriving book club that survived the closure of the store from which it began. Sunny currently lives next to the Truckee in Reno, NV.