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Flash Focus: Wendy Barker Tells A Sweeping Tale With Her Novel In Prose Poems

The "novel in prose poems" Nothing Between Us: The Berkeley Years (Del Sol Press, 2009) by Wendy Barker traces, according to Sandra Gilbert, "the bittersweet, erotically compelling love affair between a young white married high school teacher and one of her African-American colleagues, [s]et against a brilliantly detailed portrait of Berkeley in the late sixties and related in a series of poignantly lyrical prose poems."

Below is one of those prose poems, told from the POV of the "young white married high school teacher," one that appears early in the novel:

What You Got.jpg


I love that sense of motion, of being swept up and around, not only in this piece, but throughout the novel: brushed, walked, striding, clomped, lift up, bend down. And then set against all that movement: "Sometimes he came out to fill his glass, and sometimes he stayed inside for a long time." Synecdoche, the power of the one to stand for the many, works so well here and throughout, with her movement standing in for a far-reaching sense of movement(s). Her husband's stasis works similarly, and that dynamic of being carried from "what you got" into what might be possible drives this collection to explore, in its tiny pieces, a much larger and vaster world, not only of the 1960s and Berkeley, but that world within its main character and all that she desires and struggles to understand.

It's interesting to me how the back-of-the-book blurbs refer to these pieces both as "lyrical prose poems" (Sandra M. Gilbert) & "flash-fiction with a twist" (Alicia Ostriker). Of course such labels don't matter much, but I do so love when a poet turns to prose. I love the sense of musicality and rhythms, how Barker captures the pace of a day, those short clipped sentences of the second paragraph's opening, and then the sentences themselves clomp across that wood floor, and then rise in the last paragraph to serve.  


Here's the prose poem that appears in the novel after "What You Got":

Shop Talk.jpg


The take-your-breath away phrasings of the poet, like Anne Sexton's "my heart is a kitten of butter," draw me to the poem, to its re-creation of the world and its objects. This is the bar-story that countless writing teachers have told their students to stay away from because it's darn-near impossible to make it seem fresh. I love, though, this bar, the way Barker captures the clip of the conversation, those remarkable phrasings such as "he means business" and "our eyes held" that hold such weight and import. That's what I love, too, about compression, about how each detail seems to be loaded and charged, from the "another drink, Johnny Walker on the rocks, just a little water" to that "napkin that said Harry's, A Berkeley Tradition."

There's a sense, in this "underwater cave," in the "whispering, really" again of things moving: the new principal, the alternative schools, that turn to talk about liking "what comes before the--actual sex part." And of course that ending, of the "run right over them." My own sense of the 1960s comes from books and music and films, and so I'm reminded of that 60s experience, Dylan's "Your old road is rapidly agin' / Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand / For the times they are a-changin'." I love that "she smiled, a big one" as a way to end this "shop talk." And again, the musicality: "fiddled with the peanuts, finally picked one out of the dish, sucked off the salt before I chewed."

nothingbetweenus.jpgThis "novel-in-prose poems" inspired me to begin to develop a course on the novel-in-FF/PP. I love the richness of each choice Barker makes with both language and content, in the telling of this expansive story using a compressed form. I love the novel's movement and its stillness, the forces at work both in its creation and its final form. I most of all love all that it made me feel, the way the narrator tells her tale as if there really were "nothing between us."

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