Willis Barnstone is an American poet, who is also known as a translator. His work draws on multiple languages and references, both to the works of other poets and also to philosophical theories, all undertaken in a rigorously intellectual manner. Barnstone believes that much of our western modern culture is rooted in Greek philosophy. Yet, even if the reader can swallow that statement from a European perspective (and even that seems bizarre) it is not simply the West he explores. Perhaps because of this assertion of the common ancestry of these diverse cultures, the considerable mixing of distinct languages and foreign personalities represented in the collection creates harmony. His distinctive way of writing is a testament to his well-travelled learning.
Barnstone’s most recent collection, Mexico in My Heart, begins with looking at childhood. In this section, the semantic, imagistic field of the past is modern and not ambiguous; he is very specific about location, names and facts, as is evident in his poem “What to Do with Billy”. This contrasts to his later poems on adulthood where we have more abstract and ambiguous representations, as in for example “The Island of Patmos” where the “sun bakes the white crenellation” and “The heavens open and a white horse steps”; both these express his vision in a more figurative way than his factual depictions of his past. Whilst we might not question the absurdity of this way in writing, it is actually rather odd. There is juxtaposition: memories are more ambiguous and metaphorical than the present which is clear and vivid. This manner of representation an unsettling and unusual representation especially in relation to the clarity in the recall of our memory. As Barnsone remarks, “everything is paradoxical”; his choice to manipulate time and recall can be seen as an embodiment of this idea.
Barnstone’s collection offers a developmental process. He uses names of poets and philosophers to further express his emotions and experiences, and engages with them emotionally. In “The Hole of My Lungs”, for example, he uses his knowledge of John Keats to express himself. However, such intellectual development takes place without any growth or change in his tone of voice: he sounds naive by using simple and blunt sentences. Tonally, he is reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop; both their voices seem innocent and direct. In this manner, Barnstone exudes an innocence. In contrast, the violent topics and sexual languages he uses elsewhere (‘her breast and groin are sweet”, “dreaming bodies…drown in small waves”) is offered so seemingly casually, as though he is too naive to even realise the explicitness of it; you tend to wonder what statement the poet is trying to make. The way in which Barnstone tackles sometimes taboo subjects expressively reveals his influence by philosophy in ancient Greece where topics on death and lust can be uttered without stigma.
This collection is divided into chapters, each depicting a part of a journey. The section “Inventing China” is poignant and exposes his curiosity towards Chinese culture where Barnstone falls back on the imagery of purity and luxury (“white”, “gold”, “flowers”) to create a transcultural image. Like Bishop once again, Barnstone here blends fantasy, culture and language encouraging the world to keep progressing into a transcultural and international environment.
What is particularly beautiful in Barnstone’s writing is his acceptance of his own mortality. Unlike some others who might be said to be obsessed with or excessively curious about death like, say, Sylvia Plath, Barnstone manages to write about death without sounding morbid or at all self-absorbed. Death is often accompanied by a brighter image reflecting life (“black light” and “gold wordless day”). Although “To die is not a miracle, and no achievement. It is a blot,” the expectation of death doesn’t become an obstacle impeding the joy of living: “Yet beauty is here and now! Hooray for ignorance.” This desire to treasure the present moment, remember and absorb the past in all its manifestations is significant throughout Mexico in My Heart, leaving the reader with the gift of a unique, poignant and relaxed perception of life.