Why Is It So Hard to Kill You?
by Barrett Warner
Somondoco Press, 2016
Barrett Warner’s new collection Why Is It So Hard to Kill You? is perhaps best explained through his poem “Poem with Only a Single Reference to a Shotgun,” which does not actually contain a reference to a shotgun at all: only the animal’s convulsions, his bleeding ears. When the reader tries to focus this collection in his cross-hairs, it will not hold still for the shot, fragmenting into pleasing pieces just beyond the viewfinder.
The poems in Warner’s collection all have a silent haunting to them—a feeling that more hovers just off the page, perhaps by a hangman’s noose. Poems such as “I Thought I’d Stop Having Sex Dreams of Kim After She Broke Her Neck” and the poem “Did I Tell You How Much I Liked the Maple Candy?” play with the dark edge between ecstasy and disaster. In “Kim” the narrator’s sexual fantasies for a woman persist after a tragic accident that nearly killed her, and in “Maple Candy” the tenderness of a mare giving birth in maple sugar season is contrasted with the death of her foal who “suffered kissing spine/making him hurt everywhere/ except in his quiet, lean gaze/ as he galloped towards/ a barbiturate finish.” Even the foal’s imagined ailment “kissing spine” seems to revel in the terrible edge between light and dark. For Warner, love kills.
Animals are a persistent motif that embolden the poet to toe the line between this world and the next in the collection. Their trials, deaths, or even refusal to die reveals much about his view of human nature. The poem from which the title of the collection is taken “Immortal One” ponders a line of deceased pets, and in particular, one angel fish—we concede, perhaps a bit heavy-handed—that refuses to perish. “Why is it so hard to kill you?” the narrator asks, thought it is clear he is not so much trying to kill as wondering why life allows some things to decay and others to endure. “Once I left you on the porch./ You lived for two months/ eating uncautious flies/that sipped your tank water./Come on little triangle, is your song here not complete?” There is a feeling that perhaps Warner’s narrator, too, is wondering why despite being left on the proverbial porch so long, he continues through this trying life.
Even the humans in Warner’s collection walk the line between two worlds: the natural and artificial, often to comedic effect. That which belongs and that which does not. Warner’s poem “Insomnia” provides one of the more memorable opening stanzas I have read this year: “Stephie used to leave notes to Charley/beside her prosthetic breasts: I’ve gone to bed, enjoy yourself.” A casual grief pervades this collection like a fog. How did Stephie lose her breasts? Even she seems to be so caught up with the business of living that she cannot mourn them. This grief appears even for the inhuman in “Maine is Not the Place to Grow Bougainvillea.” One lover chastises another, “That plant will die in a few/weeks, she says, and then we’ll all/ have to deal with your grieving.” The longing that follows death is a state of being for Warner’s narrator. As he puts so aptly in “The New Fantastic Empathy”, “I’m neither happy, nor sad,/ but the pain cuts me to pieces.” Us too, in this deft and sly meditation on the vicissitudes of being human.