Season of Gold

The Leaves Are Something This Year
New and Selected Prose Poems
By Ed Barrett

“Nothing gold can stay,” lamented Robert Frost in his short poem on the transitory nature of the good and the beautiful. What we prize above all is fleeting. What we value cannot be boxed away forever. It must be spent, sensed, and savored in its moment. That is the lesson of Ed Barret’s rewarding new book of prose poems, aptly titled to evoke the ephemeral season of gold: The Leaves Are Something This Year.

Barrett’s collection—curated chronologically from his multiple volumes of prose poetry—sweeps his life in wistful strokes. Poem after poem honors what has sparkled and then faded, living on only in a lustrous memory. Much is the poetry of place, but the place is always a land of both shimmering light and phantom-filled darkness. Among these places are New England, New York, and Ireland, remembered from those golden days when we loved less wisely and felt more free:

…Last summer there was a drought in Ireland. I wanted to tell you how road tar was melting in the sun, how driving through it made a sound like driving through early winter slush on Mass. Ave. I wanted to tell you that our neighbor, when she was a girl, used to stand barefoot on this melting tar because she liked to feel it squishing up between her toes, how her mother got angry when she came home because she had to use butter to clean the tar off. On chilly days, she said she’d go into the field where her cows were resting, push one away, and lie down in the warm circle of grass its body left.
From “Bóithrín na Marbh (Road of the Dead)”

As this except shows, Barrett’s poetry of place is decidedly not the obsequious, blowsy variety that has become all too common. Barrett’s is crisp, fast, and robust—a double-play ball scooped and thrown by Nomar Garciaparra, the great shortstop for the Boston Red Sox and the muse of the poem, “Nomar”:

William Corbett saw Nomar Garciaparra in Charlie’s Sandwich Shop on Columbus Avenue in Boston after the Red Sox lost to the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, hugged him in silence, turned and left…

The body to uncarry itself and be seen for what Nomar did at shortstop, evening sky above Fenway scuffed by planes taking off from Logan, off balance, diving to the right, one hop off the infield grass, a soft green stain where the ball’s red stitching cinches in like the waist of Sargent’s Madame X.

—From “Nomar”

It takes a special craft to write as well about a popular athlete as Barrett has—to sustain the true emotion the figure evokes, never settling for the coy, the political, or the promotional. It’s the same craft that enables Barrett to write with heart and muscle about everyday things, from Boston’s “Big-Dig” road project to “Jockey shorts that no-way looked like a Speedo.” This craft has two elements, one imagistic, another structural.

The first is Barrett’s uncanny ability to combine an image of the ordinary with an image of the sublime. We see this clearly in the except linking Garciaparra’s snagged baseball to the gown of the painter John Singer Sargent’s masterpiece, Madame X. This kind of juxtaposition occurs throughout the collection. A “Gore-Tex sky” spreads over the harbor; the poet’s “Annunciation Mary face” stares unmoved in the blue light of late-night TV. The effect, over and over again, is to expose the truth at the core of The Leaves Are Something This Year: when we look, really look, the mundane is the most sacred thing of all. We must delight in it.

The second craft element is Barrett’s ability to collapse the structural boundary between two genres: the prose poem and the lyric essay. Narrative tethers these poems, even those that free-associate, as a stone in a field tethers a kite. Paragraph breaks and transitions borrowed from prose lend dignity to the play of images. By eliding the boundary between poem and essay, Barrett allows the writing to build a story, function as a memoir, and evoke the metaphysical. Barrett’s fleeting images of everyday life gather gravitas in association with the austere and stately essay form.

Special mention must be given to the poems in the book taken from Barrett’s 2021 volume, Blow-In Addresses. These poems shimmer and dim, dive and resurface, sing and whisper, exquisitely charting the emotional map between New England and Ireland, and more broadly, between exile and home. Adding to these poems is the fruition of a technique Barrett uses in many poems: the strong, conclusive ending. It is fashionable today to misinterpret the poet Stanley Kunitz’s dictum “end with an image and don’t explain” to mean “leave them hanging.” How wonderful to have Barrett’s satisfying endings, that click into place like Legos, rather than trail off like miasma.

If there is fault in the book, it may be the inclusion of a very small number of poems from Barrett’s books Toward Blue Peninsula (2014) and The Sinatra n (2016). These poems seem to interrupt rather than contribute to the flow of the book, and might have been omitted. But this is a minor failing in an otherwise very well-curated book. The Leaves Are Something This Year is a splendid collection with a vital lesson to teach: The everyday is plain. Like a leaf, it changes and it fades. But it is gold.

—Dana Delibovi