SOME LEAVES by Gary Barwin and rob mclennan | Review by Bill Neumire

Gary Barwin and rob mclennan
above/ground press, 2020

In a collection with a title that rings Whitmanian, seasoned collaborators with over 50 books published between them, rob mclennan and Gary Barwin offer five brief pages of poetry that come closer to feeling very Bradburian, examining the the collision of nature and the technology of language. Though the collection is co-authored, there’s no clear indication how the authoring is split. This defensively layered distance provides shade from nature’s “extraordinary example” which can only be recorded, “screen-captured,” and played back on a loop while itself remaining wholly separate and intact. The poems alternate pages with images of a bird in varying poses whose head is covered by a blank dialogue bubble. So, what do the birds say in their silence? “Honestly, say the birds. You humans. It’s not about language.” The voice of the speaker/s is aloofly clinical: “One wishes not to speak of birds, their extraordinary example. / One takes out a photocopy of a bird.” This evasive voice remains throughout the book’s 10 brief sections (the sections range from 2 to 9 lines each), maneuvering to explain that “by ‘one’ one means ‘we’ or ‘forests’ or ‘birds.’” Humans often possess an anxiety-driven need to fill silence with words, to enter a space and begin claiming. The chapbook opens, “One takes one’s computer into the woods and types ‘bird.’” This exploration of reality versus reproduction is at the heart of these poems: “The yes of the mystery.” It reads like an investigation: “There’s a river. What does it mean, this river? / There’s a sentence. That’s what it means, this curve.” And the investigation is not without its findings, as the speaker states, “Listening is always beginning again.” An atomized mingling of time and state of being occurs, as “A tree has a premonition of being cut into ladders; a leaf // in the folds of a hundred books.” There is nature in its essence, and there is what writers and artists make of nature, and in Some Leaves Barwin and mclennan “make the distance philosophical.” The collection (really a single, flowing poem) is exactly that: a voice philosophizing on what it means to use artifice to convey nature. There is one final image that is not a bird, but instead a dialogue bubble containing only three ellipses points surrounded by two leaves—perhaps indicating the abandoning of language in the face of nature. In the end, mclennan and Barwin seek no epic project, but rather an ironic self-minimalizing, an attempt to ask how valuable language is, how much we fetishize it when, in the end, “A tree is always already music.”

Reviewer’s Bio

Bill Neumire’s second book of poems, #TheNewCrusades, was a finalist for the Barrow Street Prize and will be out in the spring from Unsolicited Press.