As a fan of Sarah Jane Barnett’s debut collection, A Man Runs Into A Woman, I was excited to read her newest book of poetry, WORK. Like her debut, this collection tells the story of a variety of characters with their own shifting relationships and lives, from the life of an Ethiopian immigrant to that of a polyamorous couple.
There is a striking simplicity about Barnett’s writing, especially in the way she daringly describes the unconventional. Each poem is a snapshot of a certain life, but Barnett does not pass judgement on these lives; she simply presents them for what they are and lets readers grapple with the truth themselves. Although it can be hard at first to relate to circumstances that seem so different, there is a natural quality to these characters’ thoughts and worries that left me feeling empathetic. The longer poems did feel more fulfilling for this reason, since they felt more developed. However, the sheer variation of lives explored also made every experience valid.
Several of these poems almost felt like fantasy in the way they were presented. In one poem, a woman hunts down a bear; at the same time, she recalls the legend of a girl who decided to marry the very same kind of animal she is trying to kill. Despite this wide imaginative scope, these poems are still familiar in the way they are ultimately grounded in the real. The woman also recalls a break-up, thinks of a lost conversation and recalls other scenes in her past. It is this bridging of the gap between the real and the unreal that softens the placement of such fantasy amongst the genuine quality of these lives.
I also enjoyed the range of forms Barnett used to tell these stories, and the way she included fragmented poetry along with sections that bordered on prose. Pieces of fragmented writing allowed an internal look into the sometimes-frantic thought processes of Barnett’s characters. In ‘Running With My Father’, the narrator turns to the rhythm of her run to help her find the appropriate words. The breathlessness of the exercise leaves her language jarred, stating, “long exhale rhyme working into the cords of the body disorder”. These various formats and perspectives brought out a more solid representation of what these characters looked like to others and also, importantly, to themselves.
For me, the title WORK encompasses the way in which these characters attempt to overcome adversity. Work is an inevitable and enduring facet of life, and although this idea of work is not physically manifested in Barnett’s poetry through office tables and manual labour, it is expressed through these characters’ own struggles. In this way, they are navigators of work, trying to align it with their own desires. The silver linings that these characters find despite their struggles, all presented through Barnett’s beautiful language, makes Work a moving portrayal of humanity. Although different, these lives find a common ground in the hope of second chances, and the knowledge that it’s not the end, not quite yet.
Reviewed by Emma Shi
by Sarah Jane Barnett
Published by Hue & Cry Press