Review: 'What Comes From a Thing' by Phillip Barron

November 10, 2015

A Book Review by Scott T. Starbuck
Book Review: What Comes From a Thing by Phillip Barron
Tribute is paid to William Carols Williams in the book’s title What Comes From A Thing, in an epigraph, and in reference to the cover art by Charles Sheeler in the Notes.  Williams’ emphasis on charged precise details is evident throughout the book, but echoes of the humanity of Israeli poet Yehuda  Amichai are more striking.  Amichai, in a Lannan video, described a poem as “a lament” and said “These are the steps [poems] which keep me from falling down.”  Barron’s poems are, in many cases, laments of postindustrial despair, isolation, and ecological ruin.  However, what makes his poems, and others like them, satisfying is the contrast between how the poems begin as ordinary strolls along urban streets and wharfs then turn into profound unexpected endings that offer zen-like insight the way satori works in a haiku.

The book’s title What Comes From A Thing also fits Amichai’s interest in juxtaposing local images with echoes of past violence.  Barron knows if one listens deeply and patiently, images will speak and we as poets must get out of the way, and let them.  The art then, through years of practice or luck of natural talent, or both, is more in being a vehicle for poetic energy than a direct source of it.  The quote by Antonio Gramsci at the start of the book sets this up, and clarifies the approach: “[ . . . ] ‘knowing thyself ‘ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.”

Despair in his poem “Heirloom” begins with lines about guns and bullets, and ends “where misfired mirror neurons even mistakes, echo for years.” 

Phillip Barron, Author of What Comes from a ThingPhillip Barron, Author of What Comes from a Thing
Isolation in “The Problem of Reflection” appears when:

We see ourselves as objects
[ . . . . ] so what good are glass hands?
 [ . . . .] You could see yourself
 in the shimmers. You could
wave from a great height.

Ecological ruin in “Richmond Whaling Station” is noted in the final stanza:

A boardwalk twists at blackened angles,
frozen in the memory of fire.
The shed’s cedar walls painted gray
by wind and wooden piers remain  
stained by the spilt blood  
of drowned leviathans cut down
to lamp oil and lotion. Meat
for dogs. Flenchers paid  
for their final year of work.

Cid Corman, another poet working with the short line, wrote, “You are dead. Now speak.”  Barron, in these poems, is dead to concerns of consumerism, denial, easy “answers” – main fare of the corporate distraction machine – that plague modern society. Perhaps relying on his background as a philosopher, he distills endings into satori-like moments.  After meeting several of his satori-like poems, one looks forward to the next poem, reversing the all-too-common trend in modern poetry of dreading yet another idiosyncratic puzzle no one, except maybe the poet, will ever figure out.  Instead, Barron’s poems made me eager to read more of his work, and to look forward to his next book.
My first satori experience in his book happened in his second poem “Praxinoscope.”  I was reading about light through slats in a fence and framing bicycle spokes when, suddenly, I found “It’s the trick Milton Friedman played / on Chile. Lay the country on its side, / behind a slotted fence. / A quick succession of images / spins the revolution forward or back. “  Okay, I thought, some of these poems may seem light at first but by the end get ready for juicier subjects of politics, social conscience, and historical awareness.   I wasn’t disappointed.
Later, in “unsupposed to rain on Bolaño” we see the philosophical intelligence of Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence” when Barron writes “Once one book has been read, all books / have been read, Bolaño said. / Every storm a word / every raindrop a book.”  As with the Williams and Amichai comparisons, I like how Barron’s poems display an influence of the masters without being overly reliant on them.  These poems are not boring or heavy-handed but instead rise organically from immediate experience and sensory details.
“Palimpsest” begins by mentioning “black asphalt” and ends with the breath, pulse, and heartbeat of its opposite:

What the map can’t tell:
The time of year when the night is as hot as the day.
That a bobcat’s cry sounds like a human baby.
How mating love bugs resemble Chinook helicopters.
Why redbuds bloom before dogwoods, and which is prettier.
Which granite face eroded to make this creek sand.
How to pedal past a timber rattlesnake.
Why dance moves look like domestic chores.
That when getting off a plane in sandals, humidity
affects the feet first.

“Definitional Fallacy” artfully shows the collision of urban-distorted conscious with wild ecological community and resulting tradeoffs.

City limits stipulate where coyotes
can be shot for jogging.
Except in a flood, the eye skips
over the space between towns,
where telephone poles tie talk to the land.
What is missing is convincing.

In “Succession in Iowa” Barron shows the voice of the ancient accessing the modern through the mind of the poet:  “And when those engines finish shouting hosanna, / echoing off the paved hills, their thunder / trickles through full summer cottonwood branches, / where the noise could be mistaken for herds of buffalo. “
Similarly, John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe" [but only if we are quiet, patient, and listening].
In “Compass Points” there is a stark contrast between the relatively few affluent and the exploited suffering masses as in Blake’s poem “The Chimney Sweeper [ . . . ]”: 

Not for those who light the lights
 [ . . . . ]  Each
neighborhood wrapped in an amber bow, tied off with
 a red warning, pulsing to the rhythm of a humpback’s

In “Threshold” we see the common plight of many postindustrial workers lacking time to create or appreciate Lascaux, Altamira, Gilgamesh imaginations to celebrate and understand meanings of their lives, lives of others, or global ecological community:  “Replacement tugs, / at work in deep channels, / offer no new rhythms, / only their otherness.”

Overall, the poems were interesting instead of preachy, intelligent instead of pretentious, creative instead of ranting, satisfyingly mysterious instead of predictable or too confusing.

Scott T. Starbuck
Scott T. Starbuck is the author of Industrial Oz, mainly about CEOs' and politicians' Titanic arrogance in the face of human-caused climate destruction. Bill McKibben described Industrial Oz as "rousing, needling, haunting" and Thomas Rain Crowe as maybe "the most cogent and sustained collection of quality eco-activist poetry ever written in this culture, this country."

To learn more about What Comes From a Thing or to order a copy visit Phillip Barron's website,

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