Consider an introductory sampling of lines from Mike Barnes’ second book of poetry: “You held my arm for a moment/ as we kissed, and asked me to be careful.” Also “Fate is an oldfashioned word, you murmured.” These are the things lovers say to one another in A Thaw Foretold: though the collection begins in January, indeed with the poem “January”, and progresses onward, the poems in this book don’t presage any thaw, because the lovers it is populated with, the eternal and utilitarian “I” and “You”, are already having a deep, warm conversation. Barnes asks in “Sprawl”: “Is there time for a small poem just now,/ amid the numb or frenzied packing, the voices sounding/ last call?” And this small poem then goes on to answer in the affirmative. And this affirmative is brave, but tenuous; again addressing his love in “Meshaw Falls”, Barnes says, in a poem about his muse standing on a bridge, “I will hold this vision of you as you/ for as long as wind and planking will allow.” This introduces the real coldness of the two sections of the book: love has stakes, love has risk and is arrayed against risk, there are complications and unruly external forces that wish to impose their say on the poet’s say. But pain is merely only threatened here, or is in the past, is a making of memory; as Barnes puts it in the irregular sonnet “Abdication,” “Despair, you have held sway with me too long:// though nothing can slake the bloodless thirst for/ loss that is you, know this: our rule is done.” It’s a deft move: Barnes sheds the prophecy of despair as he admits he was complicit with it. Or as he writes in “K”: “.[N]ight will fall as it should, hugs/ and kisses back, and stories to tell…” Thus the threat Barnes is always alluding to, the threat that permeates this collection, is tempered by human conversation, is held at bay by what two lovers say to one another. Thus there is anecdote, skeins of anecdote, punctuated by and ultimately capped with lyric. In this way Barnes arrests by variation.
In conclusion I give this review over to Barnes’s talkative –and therby ultimately hopeful-poetry, in perhaps the ur-comment on the love impulse in “First Stab”: “A better [illness] could cure this stuff,/ whispered a voice, dismissing love.” This is the real thing, announcing itself, telling us, admonishing us, “Why write a poem…/ if its lines could/ not breathe in your ears?”