Take first the meaning of the word “infrangible” —not capable of being broken or separated into parts. Then take the cover art for the book, the author’s painting of a woman holding her head in her hands. Now take the poems themselves, each one observing, surveying and celebrating the body close and the body at a distance, the body imagined through the eyes of others and through the questioning of self, the body moving through the complexities of life. Body and mind. Separate. But not apart. This dynamic, the push pull of perception and reality, animates the poems in Carol Barbour’s 2018 book of poetry, Infrangible.
Written in two parts, “The Broken Vase” and “Gigantomachy”, Infrangible explores relationships and the power they hold over us—and that we hold, sometimes tenuously, within them. The first section, “The Broken Vase” consists of twenty-three poems, the titles of which read in sequence narrate a coming together and a breaking apart. In “At First”, Barbour reflects on beginnings, the slow circling “of fish in water, kissing against glass.” (3)—while yet foreshadowing the end of the relationship, “But what of the glass? It is broken.” (3) She then pulls at the threads of a relationship that has unraveled, and the troubled ways we read ourselves relative to others. The section closes with the poem “Fortune Telling Doll”, in which she writes: “Embracing the confusion of self in focus, out of context, seen through the lens of another.”
In the second part of the book, “Gigantomachy”—which references a pivotal battle in Greek mythology in which the old order of giants are overthrown by the gods of Olympus—Barbour writes large the women in her life. In “Mama” and “Grandma”, these formidable women are rendered in mythic language, take on mythic proportions. Of her mother, Barbour writes, “I was one of her admirers, and drifted away from the centre, waiting for a chance to be me in the presence of she.” (36) And of her grandma, “I recall your silhouette, attenuated, majestic, and threatening to overpower.” (39) In these and other poems in this section, Barbour interrogates the nature and enduring influence of the many power relationships we encounter in our lives, those within families, and those we find ourselves enmeshed in at work and in the varied and oftentimes unconnected social spheres in which we move. Ultimately, in the poem “Company of One”, Barbour upsets long-accepted power imbalances when she writes: “The ‘I’ is important, the inverse of how it was.” (69) In the final poem, “Allegory of the Journey”, Barbour’s words encourage us to revisit our own experiences with power and consider them anew. Just as she has done throughout this book, she inspires us to “Listen, hear it again. Differently.” (70) And by so doing, to recognize and claim our own “I”.
Barbour, a visual artist and art historian as well as a poet, writes with a painter’s eye. Interspersed throughout Infrangible are ekphrastic poems that reference Renaissance and other painters, the work of painting and the making art, and the necessity of art to life. In the poem “Art History”, she writes: “Art persists when currency fails.” (18) In the context of this book, and her recently released artist’s book “Alter Pieces”, art can also be read as a constant and sustaining force.
By Carol Barbour
Guernica Editions, Essential Poets Series 256, 2018
Jody Baltessen is an archivist and poet in Winnipeg.