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Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced
Alice James Books, $13.95 (paper)
The title of Catherine Barnett’s debut collection instantly reveals the stakes of its “tiny narrative for tying knots”: does a sphere sacrifice or realize its perfection when it is punctured? The poems themselves refuse to answer, “not wanting to be finished yet with death,” knowing that grief is “the sheen we bring to wood / when with repetitive gestures we polish the raw thing.” Barnett’s speaker pursues grief as relentlessly as it pierced her family when her sister’s daughters, aged six and eight, “disappeared into the ocean” on their flight back from a weekend with their father. The collection gradually moves out from the speaker’s sister, for whom “radiance is grief / shiny and polished / pitch and sap to her roots,” to seek grief’s effects elsewhere: the speaker’s father is “gentler now, / quiet,” and her son wears “on his face / . . . a strange pleasure when he says died / as if he’d seen a door in a mountain.” In Barnett’s vision, time, water, and sky supplant sudden loss with constant presence so that the missing, visible nowhere becomes invisible everywhere: “Someone resembling me has come: / No one resembles me but them: Therefore they have come.” This book of impossible sightings finds meaning in equivalents: the boiled hairbrushes, which at the beginning of the collection yield “like rice the nits / [that] rose to the surface, vanished, then / reappeared,” are reprised later in “the stew pot” where apples yield “smooth black seeds” that “keep rising to the surface.” Similarly, the book closes on another resurfacing, this time suggesting that grief’s inescapability might be recast as the poet’s calling to perpetuate what is lost: “I see it’s not all gray— / where the water rises up there’s shadow, / where the buoy is chained there’s chain and rust / and a still white bird turns sideways / like another face.” Into Perfect Spheres introduces a courageous and purposeful new voice, one that sounds long after the book’s final page.
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