Writing Cards / Reading Cards

If I Were In a Cage I’d Reach Out For You by Adèle Barclay – Reviewed by Klara du Plessis

Nightwood Editions 2016 - $18.95

But instead of working against the odd feeling
I have of being so separate from you
I will be calm now in knowing we will never conjoin
I will think instead that yoking is all there is left to do
I will think instead of clouds and mountains
And put them in poems
                                              —Dorothea Lasky, from “Misunderstood”

Contradicting the generalization of poetic introversion, this is a social book of poems. Adèle Barclay’s debut If I Were In a Cage I’d Reach Out For You hungers for interpersonal connections. It features parties, cocktail recipes, social smoking, sex, new relationships, old relationships, friendships. Some friendships are disguised in the cloak of literature, but others are openly acknowledged in dedications—the generosity of saying, “I thought of you and this poem happened”; “there was a moment of influence that I’m not going to hide”—roman à clef style cameo appearances are also integrated into the body of the poems so that the reader would recognize real persons if they knew the context of the writer.

"letters stand as the poetic equivalent of conversation"

In particular, correspondence epitomizes the social on paper. Letter writing is, of course, a way for friends to communicate, to stay in touch with one another and letters stand as the poetic equivalent of conversation. A recent publication Redrafting Winter, for example, collects the letters and collaboratively written poems by friends and poets Alison Strumberger and Gillian Sze; the back and forth voyage of missives measures their time apart, but the transparency of their respective messages maintains a balance of voices and emphasizes a mutual gesture of connectivity. In contrast, Barclay syncopates her collection with a series of poems called “Dear Sara”; these poems—while delicately personal and warm—only represent the poetic speaker’s side of the correspondence, removing dialogue, silencing Sara and complicating the relationship from a reciprocal exchange to a one-sided insistence on reaching out. Even when the reader is told that the poetic speaker receives a note back, the poetic speaker finds that “The ink of your letters is so like you / I don’t need to read them.” On the one hand, intimacy beyond language, on the other hand, a unilateral thrust of correspondence, which features itself, but doesn’t engage with the response.

As such, instead of bridging separation, Barclay’s correspondence poems emphasize distance. The poems harness nostalgia and geography as markers of past tense togetherness, clearly distinct from the present-day divide between friends; when the poetic speaker is in East Vancouver, Sara is in Bushwick, or when the poetic speaker is in Miami, Sara is in Toronto, and the times they spent together are dreamy reminisces of the past. The friends’ separation is an intensification of the geographic displacement inherent to correspondence. Channeling the collection’s title, solitude includes implications of imprisonment. Being apart is as if in a cage. Case in point, the poetic speaker “hole[s] up in my Bushwick loft writing letters,” thinking of Sara “in your cage.” The title’s conditional (If I Were In a Cage) is therefore activated during separation so that reaching out becomes a necessity, even when the demand for connection is limited to a hand gesturing through bars. I’m allowing this image to expand disproportionately, when I ask, but how will the caged poet get to the post office to dispatch her words?

"Channeling the collection’s title, solitude includes implications of imprisonment. Being apart is as if in a cage."

This seclusion in the face of an appeal for reciprocity reminds me of Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick. The premise is familiar: the narrator Chris and her husband Sylvère are writing a book-length, ever expanding, compilation of love letters to a man named Dick who wants nothing to do with them. The letters start out as one-sided ruminations: “Dear Dick, I, we’re, writing you this letter that we will never send.” (“Another poem I won’t send,” writes Barclay in “Dear Sara I.”) But soon not mailing the letters has become both reality and intention, and Chris adopts the nominal correspondence as a way to reflect on her own circumstances; when a friend gifts her a diary for Christmas, “The diary begins: Dear Dick.” In a poem titled “To Whom It May Concern”—an official mode of address so neutral it’s practically anonymous—Barclay similarly offers a series of notes, poetic reflections that work as self-directed journal entries rather than a message intended for a formal audience. Here letter writing becomes exploratory, auto-generative, a discovery of self through knowledge one does not even realize one has access to. Barclay writes, “I lean against a mailbox and absorb / the postal codes”: in the act of writing this letter addressed to no one in particular, the poetic speaker is suddenly privy to all the coordinates of any person she would like to contact, the raw data necessary to reach out.

"Perhaps writing cards, like reading cards, is a continual lesson in learning how to connect with yourself and with others."

Perhaps writing cards, like reading cards, is a continual lesson in learning how to connect with yourself and with others. Unlike postcards, however, the poetic speaker consistently reads her cards (“The bearded lady and I read tarot and chain- / smoke Marlboros”), reads her horoscope (“your selves … all read the same / horoscope”), and reads the tealeaves at the bottom of her cup (“I’d like to take you up on that opportunity / you placed under one of three red cups”). She manifests a persistent urge to gather, to collectively analyze and uncover a deeper sense of understanding of self, following in one tradition of the occult as an expression of feminism and, by extension, empowerment. When the poetic speaker receives bad news about Sara’s father, she tries to reach out, to share what she has learned, to “channel my psychic maternal line / of dial-up telepathy, but the best I can do / is know that you have my copy of Bluets.” Aiming to provide solace through a mystical, perhaps more complete understanding of the situation at hand, but thwarted in her attempt at the supernatural, the poetic speaker lands on poetry. Maggie Nelson’s collection becomes a symbol of connection, a focal point through which to synthesize minds even when apart. Even if the poetic speaker worries that her “magic / is all aesthetic,” that aesthetic is poetry, a form of reaching out, which is highly personal, sometimes all ego, sometimes egoless, sometimes solitary, sometimes social. Through an exchange of writing and reading, the poet both writing and reading herself, and words passing between poet and reader, If I Were In a Cage I’d Reach Out For You is about the frustration, the defiance, and yet also the yearning after, the persistence leading to connection.

Dear Adèle,

I’m afraid analysis has gotten the better of me. It now seems as if your whole collection is a compilation of Sara poems. I didn’t get to quote many of my favourite lines: “the heart breaks / in poetry and then prose”; “you split the night / into finer units of night”; “This ocean is so small, I can’t drown / the idea of sorrow.” And I really wanted to write about the line “cock made of flesh / instead of silicone,” but the review took a different direction, even with I Love Dick waiting for a jocular non sequitur. So, in brief and in your words, “some of my favourite poems / take place in your house,” thank you for writing them.