Earth Lust by Julie Brooks Barbour
Finishing Line Press, 2014
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, Poetry Editor
Earth Lust is a chapbook of chilling poems—where the heat comes from a house fire a woman may have set herself, to get away from a boyfriend, or from lust, whether it’s men’s persistent desire for women, or a woman’s “earth lust,” her wish to see workmen scooping up dirt as they dig their deep, grave-like ditches.
With titles like “Pursued” and “If you had never known fear,” these poems are just plain scary. Some of them are addressed to a “you,” who might be the speaker warning herself or a sister. Some have an “I” who is often in trouble, trapped in a nightmare, or the innocent heroine of a fairy tale. “Pursued” begins, “When he escaped I hid in bushes / in the shell of a gutted car // I hid from his teeth his wide mouth.” Clearly, she needed to hide, to stay alive!
“If you had never known fear” is a kind of list poem of the things that make girls and women cautious in the world, that prevent them from developing the confidence to walk freely…because they are not free, not safe. “If you had never / heard stories of girls who went out alone, / the violent endings that keep you hyperaware // and vigilant.” If these things didn’t actually happen, the girls and women wouldn’t have to arrange their lives in order to avoid them.
Some of the images are dreamy, and many of the poems connect, sharing images and landscapes as well as moods and fears. “Spiral” begins like the telling of a bad dream: “I was locked in a house with grates in the walls, / flames licking the iron bars.” In the next poem, “Among the Roses,” the speaker hides in the roses while the house burns, the fire’s “dark smoke / spiraling into the neighborhood.” In the next poem, there’s a wildfire; in the next, the smoke of a campfire.
Yes, there is fire here, but I’m still chilled. The women in these poems are always trying to get away; they prefer the woods and wild animals to domestic life. Freedom isn’t real for them; safety’s part of a fairy tale ending. “If you were a ghost,” begins the poem called “Navigation,” “ you could walk / through anything.” But you’d have to be dead to do it! “You’d be a bit of air, / a shadow.” Exactly. “You could float among objects.” You’d be invisible, but at least you’d be free, powerful. “But,” instead, “you are flesh and feel a touch of air // when it moves past. You shiver / from the darkness among the trees.” I shiver through each reading of this book, wanting the women to get out alive, hoping for transformations and enacted escape scenarios. “You must avoid the dead end.”
And they do!
Barbour’s speakers are self-aware. They know their world is dangerous. They know their desires are sometimes other than the ones they were taught to have. They know that to map their escape routes is a good idea. They know that to become a shadow, ghost, or secret, invisible self might be a way out. In “Becoming Her,” a sort of transformed Cinderella story, the speaker knows her own hidden inner power:
I’m a shadow
in the stairwell and the corner
of a room, intangible and speechless,
what you cannot clear with a broom
or a dream. I move as quickly
as a ghost to clear the air
and won’t talk back. I serve you
without complaint. I’m so good at it
you believe it’s what I want.
The internal rhymes here keep reinforcing the inner power and strength of the speaker, which comes from her self-knowledge.
Even one of the sweetest poems in the book, “From the Back Seat,” where there is a sense of safety in a charming domestic scene—though oddly reversed, with the mother sleeping in the back seat and the small daughter sleeping in the front seat beside her dad, the driver—there’s a sense of the danger all around, that it might not have worked out this well: “Off to the side were other roads.” What an evocative line: She might not have ended up here, among the available choices. Lots of other women weren’t as lucky. But some of them were out there, free.
You can read several of Julie Brooks Barbour’s whole poems, some from Earth Lust, here at Escape Into Life. Click the links below! And you can purchase the book via the link to Finishing Line Press.
Book cover art by Amelia Grace Brooks