A review of Prayers waiting for God by David Barnes

Reviewed by Rob Walker

Prayers waiting for God
by David Barnes 
Mulla Mulla Press
2011, ISBN 9780987077110, http://www.mullamullapress.com/node/6

I first ‘met’ David in the early days of the internet when he ran an early e-lit journal called Poetry DownUnder from 1997. David published a lot of my early work which encouraged me to write more and send it to other places as well.

Born in 1943 (and with a whole litany of medical conditions including a debilitating spinal injury which makes movement and long periods of writing difficult) David Barnes doesn’t expect to write much more. He came to poetry by a long route. Leaving school at 13, he worked for 11 years as a carpenter in Melbourne before traveling throughout the outback as a driller, trench-digger, stockman, petrol-pumper, cook and playing self-taught guitar at folk festivals. This morphed into writing, poetry and editing the DownUnder and Numbat websites. He met his wife Libby in Alice Springs but they settled in Perth in ’72 where David sold real-estate and they had a son. When Libby died in ’96, David had to raise Daniel alone on a disability pension. Amazing that with all this, David also continued to write his own poetry, founded Poetry DownUnder and edited and encouraged other poets like me. Small wonder that he hasn’t had time to be a prolific poet or that only now (with the help of fellow WA poet Janet Jackson) has he been able to produce a collection. The result is an intense collection of the impressions of one man’s life.

The opening poem ‘entreaties’ is both a bleak prayer and an acceptance of grief devoid of maudlin self-pity:

i do not sleep much anymore
unremittingly it is naps and snacks 
pen in hand, inscribing words at 5am 
i have prayed for relief 
There is no answer conversing with God
if thought
exceeds the velocity of light
would he hear
a single muted plea
it seems life
is a continually moving flash
an inside-outside ache
this leaves no thought
on how to spend
the days
it’s Easter holidays
and the only man
with the solution died
carrying his fated cross
i surmise
i will have to continue
carrying my own
between toast and coffee
the aftertaste lingers, like prayers
waiting for God

The harshness of institutional routine in a day at St John’s Boys Home is recalled in language that is basic and poignant:

We are neat rows
of hard steel-framed beds,
weight of bodies in the dark,
heads turned sideways,
installed for the night.
Retinas burn
torchlight; body counts,
darkness hangs, numbers,
pain, solitude.
We close off
shape sanctuary walls
so nothing can
touch us.
(‘Storms in Childhood.’)

And Barnes the imagist renders a scene even more chilling for it lack of humanity and emotion:

Outside the thick bluestone,
exposed branches sway like whips,
lash the air,
and the shriek
of the wind penetrates,
echoes a voice:
the pious priest administering
the thick lash,
rhythmic, bruising,
the whack and howl suppressed, drowned
by the noise of the storm.
(‘Storms in Childhood’)

It is the strength of his images that make David Barnes a gifted poet – to reduce these painful experiences to a series of flashes, like the photo that arrived in 1999 of a mother he never knew:

corners curled, brown with age.
In the photo
a young woman held a child – smiling,
rosy cheeks, blonde hair,
brown eyes gazing,
two hands
holding teddy – in her arms.
(‘If only I had known her’)

The master of the burning image which persists – killing a kangaroo when he was 22:

I hit
the roo in the chest.
He went down to a half-sit.
As I walked up, he raised
his proud red head, looked me
straight in the eyes.
I felt ashamed.
I had simply shot him,
not for food or skin,
just for the sport of it.
Something passed between us.
One more shot
between his eyes
finished him.
Three hundred miles from
Alice Springs
there is a twenty-two rusted,
buried in sand.
(‘In the eyes’)

Other poems are written as narratives with the emotion even more potent because it is understated. He relates how he and a mate stumble upon a rolled, smashed-up Holden containing two dead parents and a young, living, scalp-sliced boy. They clean the ants from his exposed skull:

My mate
drove fifty miles
to Alice Springs.
I stayed, with the living
and dead, inside the wreck.
No one really remembers.
I do.
(‘A dirt road, Alice Springs’)

David Barnes’ portrait in ‘the carpenter retires’ has a particular resonance for me as my own memories of my carpenter-father have much in common. (In fact David once sent me an email to apologise for inadvertently ‘stealing’ some of the phrases and themes in my poem “Shed tears”. It’s nonsense of course. We all absorb ideas and images from others’ work and incorporate them into our own.) Are the ‘ hands which once/ planed the rich surface/ of a life cut down,/ made into/ an intricate corner cabinet/ hanging somewhere’ his own hands? I believe so. His own memories of carpentry as his past life are all the more touching when written in the third person:

Hand tools worn smooth
from years of use lie across
the scarred workbench:
blades capable of cutting pencil lines in half
hang from hooks, teeth sharp,
oiled for packing.
The tang of timber lingers
in aged nostrils
as he packs his tool box.

He also observes others with a warm empathy – a homeless man, an old woman, lovers walking… Painful moments. Grief in an image:

your white split-mesh
see-through dress
which drove other men, burning,
to seek you out
hangs inert in our wardrobe…
… all I have left.
(‘memories mingle’)

Even the deepest questions are framed in the simplest of words:

I saw a green sprout today, curled,
pushing it way
through the earth, unfurling,
knowing the answer;
while I seek that answer
but will not know it until I
am placed in the ground
(‘The Question’)

Despite a decaying body, humour toughs it out:

I wake not wishing to rise,
longing for lively yesterdays
when I wasn’t this trapped back-broken being.
The only parts
that can dance anymore
are my
(‘Things happen’)

He writes of profound moments with an honest simplicity – not unlike Peter Bakowski’s…

when i awakened
i was tired of the dream
the mirror told me
a sad-eyed man
stayed with me all night
waiting for dawn

… an acceptance of the fate of us all. Perhaps even a longing…

At the quiet church gardens
weeds and wild grasses
wave to me in welcome
wait for my ashes to be joined
with those from the past
in moist soil;
I will rest in the shade of the trees.
I will watch goldfish swim in the lily pond.
I will walk the earth I have known.
I will feel the Freemantle Doctor’s
gentle touch through withered leaves.
Since birth, this land has given me
my breath, my life, its love.
Finally, my earthly residue returns
to where I belong
(‘In the silence of the morning’)

and penultimately, images of passing:

With flickering light
a candle burns
shedding wax;
with passing time
its glow dims
the wick dwindling
until there is
no more.
(‘The Wick’)

But David completes this beautiful book with optimism from the poem ‘In the morning’:

Outside light
cascades in rainbows through
my garden
reminding me
of how much I am

Prayers waiting for God is a summary of one poet’s life. But it is also for all the rest of us; testimony that, despite pain, humiliation and suffering, there is joy too, and the human spirit can and will survive.

About the reviewer: Rob Walker is a poet and short-story writer from Adelaide, currently living in Japan. www.robwalkerpoet.com