Review of Haunted City
Haunted City by Julie Brooks Barbour
Kelsay Books, Aldrich Press, 2017
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor
The poems in Haunted City, by Julie Brooks Barbour, are indeed haunting. They read like a book of scary fairy tales or a dream journal. The opening poem, “Once,” provides a once-upon-a-time projected narrative arc in which an “I” speaker takes her “promises to the water and set[s] them adrift,” perhaps to the opposite shore, where a city looms in “smoke…, a cartoon cloud. It told me the city might offer what the shore could not.” Might…. But the city is full of shadows and omens, men who stand still as statues or indoctrinate her in crime. Inscrutable men.
In this poem, the city itself is personified as a man:
The City Descends
on me like a lover. His dark coat brushes my bare skin. It is always night and I am always willing even though I know better. I lie down on his cold bed, a sheet of cement. He embraces me with electric wires and suction kisses. The next morning, stray sheets of newspaper tumble in the street as I walk home. The breeze lifts his scent of smoke and standing water. I hold my breath against the smell.
Sometimes a story winds through the dreamy cityscapes—a love affair with an elusive man, an important person. The speaker sets a fire to catch his attention, but there is damage, scarring. In “Robbed,” a grim fairy tale, an old woman who has cooked another woman up in a stew, saves the speaker from the “ravenous” men.
Sometimes, as in “Girl Becomes Ghost,” the speaker feels invisible: “I could not convince other children I existed.” Sometimes she feels small, as small as a mouse, or even smaller: “I am mouse bones in an alley.”
The book is full of shadows; even if they are beautiful, they threaten and entrap the speaker. “My body casts a shadow from which I cannot move.” The speaker has second thoughts; she wonders, “Was I happier on the shore?”
Even though I had read several of these poems before, even published some here at EIL, in lineated form, they were even scarier as prose poems, a form that intensifies their surrealism and nightmarish quality. Seeing them all together does that, too, as if we are on the journey with her, gone to the haunted city, ourselves lurking in the shadows.
My advice is to read this book on a sunny day in the back yard. That is, Haunted City is not exactly for bedtime reading, as it might scare the bejeezus out of you. But I do plan to return to it for Halloween! For now, I celebrate Haunted City as I celebrate National Poetry Month—on a sunny day in the back yard!
And I’ll leave you with a timely one, with light expected despite the shadows, and a hopeful Thumbelina of a speaker.
I Wait for Spring
I sun in a windowsill and sleep in a husk. Darkness was never my home, not the swamp or tunnels beneath the earth. Outside in a field of flattened grain, I search the sky for birds and hunt for seeds among brown stalks. When winter arrives, I wrap myself in a brittle leaf and follow a mouse underground. Because I am small, everyone thinks I require a caretaker. They take me to shadows and expect happiness, that I will flourish despite my need for air and light. When flowers bloom in spring, I bury my face in petals, dust my fingers with pollen, and welcome birdsong, the sky again full of light and wings.