Three New Poets I Met at Bread Loaf by Steve Wingate

The Boatloads, Dan Albergotti, BOA Editions


Mission Work, Aaron Baker, Houghton Mifflin


Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone, Janice N. Harrington, BOA Editions


A decade ago, I didn’t think twice about taking a day off and hunkering down with a novel. Diaper changes and pre-school pickups have temporarily obliterated such big bouts of reading, but lately poetry has been coming to my rescue. While novels demand large swaths of time, poetry asks for an opposite kind of attention that is perfectly suited to shorter sittings. This August at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference I had the pleasure to meet three poets whose prize-winning debut collections—two received the Poulin Prize from BOA Editions, one the Bakeless Prize from Bread Loaf—have saved my reading bacon and created worlds as rich as those I find in novels.

In The Boatloads, Dan Albergotti focuses on rendering moments when his characters become intensely aware of human vulnerability—physical, psychic, and spiritual. A boy watches a squirrel die; a fish gets carried off by a raptor. In Albergotti’s lines, which tend toward the vernacular, there is an implicit questioning of language itself as a tool of human comprehension and expression. “I do not believe a special providence / makes this world say anything,” (24) he writes. And people never seem to be able to get their words out right, as in Bad Language:
We fear to speak, and silence coats the night air.
So we are dumb, as quiet as the kitchen pans
hanging on their cabinet hooks. What words
do we even have? (25)
Such lines bespeak a muteness in the face of our desire to know, and since the desire to know gets so tied up with the Big Questions of Being, it’s no surprise that The Boatloads hovers close to religion. God makes several appearances, and both Jesus and Abraham make cameos; but it is the non-appearance of the divine as in Poem in Which God Does Not Appear that most occupies Albergotti. This non-appearance, often represented as of silence, aligns closely to human difficulties of language and communication.
The music of the spheres may be a great symphony
of unbroken silence: void, more void, a crescendo
of void. (41)

The last song of the one true god
is silent because the one true god
sings in a vacuum behind the thick,
black wall. (73)
One can never accuse Albergotti, with his weaving together of human and divine muteness, of shirking his poetic duty to dig toward the core of life.

The people of Aaron Baker’s Mission Work, meanwhile, find themselves in a far more primordial predicament. The collection is set in the remote Chimbu highlands of Papua New Guinea, where the author spent part of his childhood with missionary parents. In it, language takes a back seat as a tool for understanding life to the objects and movements of the physical world. In Chimbu Wedding, we are thrown into a world where the narrator, too young to make intellectual sense of his world, must rely on what he can sense and imagine:
When the pigs scream
and buckle with their skulls caved in
remember that not one thing in this world
will be spared. (3)
For Baker’s characters, understanding the world through the senses is a fundamental condition of life, just as muteness is for Albergotti’s. But this state is not limited to the young man we witness growing up in a place he does not know; the Kuman tribespeople we meet dwell in the same situation as they come to terms with the foreignness that has entered their community. One example of the interplay between cultures comes in Zero in the Branches, which describes a Japanese plane stuck in a tree.
Look: high in the canopy, forty years
since it fell almost to earth, the fuselage
hangs, its Rising Sun a circle of rust. ( 28 )

In a sense, the entire world of Mission Work becomes foreign, since anything its characters see is either alien in its essence or made alien by the presence of another culture. Baker’s use of variety of voices shifts attention away from autobiographical elements and toward his theme: the deep self-questioning that occurs on both sides of the fence whenever cultures interact. Mission Work includes poems in the voice of the Kuman natives, as well as observational poems with more abstracted narrators. Throughout the collection Baker shows people attempting to bride the gap between cultures, though he knows that some bridges cannot be crossed. In Second Genesis, for example, he writes:
We’ll be a single son of this country
when each has killed half of the other. ( 18 )

Janice N. Harrington’s Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone also dwells in place, and it creates its world with an authorial I even more effaced than Baker’s. The place is the American south in the mid-20th century, and before we meet its people we learn, from Harrington’s intense, cadence-driven lines, that we will be reading a poetry that calls out and sings to the world. The propulsive Alexandrine opening couplet of The Thief’s Tabernacle, which begins the collection, marks Harrington as the most rhythmically driven of these three poets:
If I steal the wan light from these penitent clouds
and take from their pewter cups dull coins full of rain (15)
So enmeshed are Harrington’s poems in the voice that we may not immediately realize we are reading a family narrative. We meet people and follow them around for a quarter of the collection before an I tentatively begins to assert itself. Only as we sink into her character do we recognize that we are reading a family history—as well as a social history—which began before her birth. We see “a school bus, / the one they used to carry colored kids / from biscuit to book and back again” (39). In The Warning Comes Down, we learn that:
France is where daddies go,
overseas, in silver-bellied planes, and maybe
they’ll come home again, tomorrow, tomorrow. (57)

The poems grow in scope and depth as the I comes of age, encountering the world and and embracing the forces that shaped her. Things become less innocent, less nurtured by the history of her family and more thrown into the history of her society as we meet “A Negro family going north, one of thousands leaving…” (70), then in Benham’s Disk:
My niece calls and exclaims, Guess what.
Yesterday I was white but now I’m black. (79)
Harrington’s intimate approach to social history—working first and foremost with the things and sounds of her characters’ world—gives Hollow a certain kinship with Mission Work. Toward the end she reminds us, in lines that might have found a home in Baker’s collection, that:
Vision is born of violence. All your memories
are mulattoes. (77)


Steven Wingate’s short story collection Wifeshopping won the 2007 Bakeless Prize for Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was published by Houghton Mifflin in July, 2008. He spends his analog time in Colorado and his digital time at

Unified Fragmentation: Alonzo McBride on John Barth’s The Development

The Development, John Barth, Houghton Mifflin


John Barth seemingly vanished for a few orbits of the earth but he has popped up again with an interiorly-crossed, densely constructed set of short stories, The Development. And as he has popped up, he brings with him his continual sense of his own act of writing. Barth writes with a strong and clear sense that he is in the act of writing a narrative, but these nine stories must also be seen as an act of writing by the reader. John Barth wants his readers to pay attention to the artifice in the technology of bookish art (some call this “literature”) because that is how he hurrahs for laughter at the world developing around him and within him. We know that John Barth (b. 1930) is getting older, so readers know that the narrative voice(s) in the stories of The Development is obviously meant to reflect an older person’s attention to the world around him vis-à-vis the neighborhood featured and skewered in the collection.

There are elements of brilliant, deliberate disjunction built into these tales. Barth sets these stories in a set of neighborhoods run by Tidewater Communities, Inc. on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland making a point of continually coming back to this area with community names such as Dorchester, Avon, Kent, Oxford, and Cambridge. He draws relationships between these neighborhoods and that distant inspiration for their naming across the Atlantic. At first glance, this action seems to embrace the threads of time between points of great culture and refinement held from England carried forth to America the New World. However, all that nice rumination ends with the simple phrase on Cambridge and Oxford, “pleasant small towns both, but absent anything remotely like Brit counterparts’ venerable universities.” (74) Whish! There goes the beauty of English tradition, and John Barth replaces it with a simulacrum of townships with cool sounding names exhibiting little or no meaningful or long lasting value. That simple phrase is so deftly handled by Barth that with it he suggests a large, open, connected world only to clip off those connections at the first chance he gets (or makes for himself), leaving a string with little origin floating in space.

The kinds of life Barth portrays in these neighborhoods and towns walled by gates of metal and 24 Hr guards are steeped in love, family deaths, and toga parties. Their conversations are traced deliberately through following them looking for peeping toms over hedges and fences, waiting in lines at their gated communities for the 24 Hr guards to wave them in, and debating whether to rebuild their hurricane destroyed landscape with green-friendly roofs. These are lives lived at the end of suburban streets and inside brightly lit perfectly decorated living rooms, and Barth does a fine job at showing these lives lived in jokes, pain, and jobs.

Barth’s skill in fabricating these lives presents Readers (as he likes to capitalize in direct address) a gift of dialectic thinking through his act of chopping every scene up into aspects for direct consideration. This is unified fragmentation if there is such a thing, and John Barth like his (yeah, I will do it) precursors Jorge Luis Borges and particularly William S Burroughs have done so well in the past. John Barth has created nine pieces of fabulist work for today’s culture and today’s politics.