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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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For fur­ther read­ing, check out FlashFiction.Net’s sug­gested read­ings of flash fic­tion and prose poetry col­lec­tions, antholo­gies, and craft books, by click­ing here.

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