Smog Mother by John Wall Barger (Palimpsest Press, 2022)

“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”
― G.K. Chesterton

Travel poems are often impossible sorts of constructions. They are made of bits of momentary seeings, fleeting, from a train, maybe, or on a brief and guarded stroll, knowing one can go home and leave the suffering or even, the beauty behind one. Travel poems frequently fail, at times shouldn’t even exist as they can add little to the world but admissions of our own ignorance (though acknowledging “wrongness,” as both Rachel Zucker and Christian Wimen are teaching me, has its value too). When one travels more intently however, or even lives in a place for a more complexified period of time, then real poems about otherness can happen. Smog Mother‘s fragments of China, Tibet, Mexico as viewed through a compassionate and curious temporary inhabitant’s eyes hold that necessary value more often than not. How?

Well, on the one hand, via context and positioning. On the other, by attention to the sensory details and the musicalities of language. If one is going to write travel poems, some comprehension of the realities that surround the seeings is essential. Barger’s end Notes make clear his awareness of coups, executions, immolations, poverty and ideology, as do lines in his poems that reference Sutin Tharatin, the Great Proletarian Revolution and perhaps most importantly, his status as western interloper, a fat man insinuating, “It is our business,/look away tourist” in Cryptoscopophilia, or the writer referring to himself as “the big flabby American poet” (Delirious in the Pink House).

The opening titular poem in three parts is quite astonishing, and especially Part II, an Eliotian anaphoric litany of pollution, impoverishments, and the elaboration of a mythical figure (the Smog Mother herself recalling to me again the haunting of Bowling’s Tenderman). A chant is a potent mode through which to enter a book, a door of sound, and Barger then leads his readers into memorable character pieces such as those about the “Bathroom Attendant in Tai Po Mega mall” who, amid toilets “backwashing/like a ferry pulling in” is “wiping piss drops with his right” hand, the personified Samovar that, in a lengthy and impressive piece of the same name, asks, with Barger’s wife’s lips, “How ruiners, did you get/this clean?”, the corpse who is subject to the “Public Cremation, Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu,” a man of “ashes and butterflies” (speaking of which, separating the sections in this book is a startling silhouette of a dog gradually emerging, then vanishing inside a swarm of black & white monarchs), and the bullfighter, a “beardless matador/in his suit of lights” in “Bullfight, Plaza Mexico.”

I must admit that some similes in Smog Mother feel forced or frankly perplexing, especially “Like an autistic child the road collapses” (really?) but also the dog who “Limps among cars/Like an earthquake” (truly?) or the man who shakes his “head like a bride” (say what?). Also, a few endings fall into banality as with the puppies who yip in “The bliss born of agony” (seems unearned) or the child who is summed up as plainly “Ungrateful” (thus undermining the prior descriptive pow). Yet these are quibbles (and still they must be noted if we give a dang about composing more attentive poems) in a collection that takes travel writing to a more necessary level than is frequently imaginable in this quick-fix, -fast-shot, slip-past world. Indeed, after reading Smog Mother, we can now experience “the plenty of it.”


One thought on “Smog Mother by John Wall Barger (Palimpsest Press, 2022)

  1. Pingback: Smog Mother reviewed in Marrow Reviews - Palimpsest Press

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