Helen Peterson on Redneck Poems by Rusty Barnes

Redneck Poems, Rusty Barnes, Mipoesias Chapbook Series

Rusty Barnes is the literary equivalent of a triple threat, equally talented as a writer of poetry as he is an editor, both of the critically noted Night Train and, with the recent release of Ken Clark’s Eggs of American Songbirds, books by other talented writers. The thing that strikes you most reading Barnes’ own books, is that they always end too soon. His new chapbook Redneck Poems, part of the Mipoesias Chapbook Series, is a perfect example. Less than twenty pages in length, and containing only fourteen poems, Redneck is the tapas you receive when you’re starving for a porterhouse.
These poems, without exception, have a rhythm to them, a pacing, that perfectly jibe with the emotions and stories being told. Rusty is a master at the couplet, a perfect example would be the poem “The Appassionata of Spring”. In the lines:

…every time we come together
and wetly separate you stretch over our heads
and adorn a lilac branch with condoms

of varying colors. Someday if we do not
stop this entire bush will be an alien thing…

the spaces between couplets , the uneven length of lines mimic succinctly the lilac branches. The enjambed lines help give the reader a feeling of being ecstatically spent in the same way the lovers are, looking up at the bush.

Another of the writer’s key strengths is his use of metaphor. Metaphor can be a tricky thing to work with. It can either become cliché to the point of losing any meaning, or so obscure that only the poet knows for sure how one thing relates to the other. However, whether it be the condoms on the bush, the “peas, like tiny heats in your hand” in the poem Summer, Shelling Peas, the girl Faith in High School Chick Fight, or “the glovebox dry as a dog’s midsummer mouth” in On a Miscarriage, each poem in Redneck is fresh and yet relatable.

There is very little to criticize in this small book. There are times when you can see the poet’s MFA showing, where the eloquence of the speaker takes the reader out of the back woods. Mr. Barnes, a child of the Appalachians himself, has an undeniable feel for the people, what gives their lives meaning. It is also true that in doing so, he makes us realize that regardless of one’s bank account or education, we all draw meaning from the same things. But when in Hollywood Appalachian Noir the persona speaks of the “subtle knife of my intentions”, or in Behold the Starry Ego the speaker talks of “joining the starry firmament”, we as readers are pulled a bit too far out of the trailer park, and reminded that this is a book of poetry. We lose the touch of empathy we’d been building with the subjects within Redneck.
Another thing that stuck out, especially in a book of this size, were two poems that just didn’t seem to mesh with the others. Rebellion of the Flesh, a poem on the death of an elderly relative, and Cutter, about a daughter caught in the act of cutting herself, are both tragically beautiful in their own right. However, in a collection of fourteen, where the majority focus on the relationships between men and women in a sensual and earthy manner, they don’t seem to make sense as members of the collection.

Overall, as its predecessor, the flash fiction collection Breaking it Down has already shown fans of Rusty Barnes, the man is a storyteller at heart. The voices which speak to us in Redneck are believable, sometimes likable, at other times abhorrent, but always, in the end, forgivable of their faults. Nowhere is this more so than in the poem On a Miscarriage, it takes a skilled male author to speak from a female voice on something so heartbreaking, so viscerally feminine, but Barnes does it. With lines like:

She thought of the children lost in the night by blood

And by accident and by God. The stars don’t twinkle,
she thought. They stick up there out of pure love

Or out of cussedness. All those dead babies up there,
she thought. They dare not fall to earth, ever again

He tugs at something human in all of us in a way you have to read to fully appreciate. There is power in the Rednecks. To not read the collection and share them with others would be a sin in the barefooted souls within each of us.

One response to “Helen Peterson on Redneck Poems by Rusty Barnes

  1. Pingback: Review of Redneck Poems by Rusty Barnes « Ms. Peterson Explains it All: A Writer's Journal