The Game of Boxes by Catherine Barnett

Review by Michael Luke Benedetto

Catherine Barnett’s second book of poetry, The Game of Boxes (Graywolf Press, 2012), includes three sections, which provide the reader with three disparate poetic experiences, traversing the waters between the roles of mother, wife, and lover.  Winner of the 2012 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, this book also delves into the larger subjects of religion, eternity, death, and anxiety while still finding room for the beauty in simple moments and the tragedies of the everyday.

The first section of The Game of Boxes, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful,” is predominantly comprised of short poems, many between six and nine lines, often focusing on the quotidian activities of mother and child.  This is best evidenced in the title poem, in which the speaker spends all night playing a simple game with her son in order to distract him “from the greater deletions.”  While these simple moments pass, the reader is often reminded of the passage of time, the clock, and “its own quick trickle-down story” (“Old Story”).

Section two, entitled “Sweet Double, Talk-Talk,” is a sequence of poems marked by roman numerals that leads the reader through a tortuous relationship with the tone of a foreboding nursery rhyme or lullaby.  The sense of love, lust, loss, and longing is summed up best in the lines from “xvii”:

Sometimes he’s everything to me:
yesterday, tomorrow, regret, and shame.

And sometimes he’s nothing to me,
an old cushion on an old couch:

a pin-cushion:
something I think I can replace.

The poems in this section are very brief but speak volumes as a whole and may leave readers wishing the rest of the book had the same sense of scope and cohesion.

The poems in Barnett’s final section, “The Modern Period,” are comparable to those found in the first but with more of that lingering sense of anxiety over the passage of time, of being alone, and of aging:  “I’m as old as the police station! / Old as a handful of pennies saved in a sack” (“Which System is Most Miraculous?”).  Though the contemplation of aging often implies the expectation of death, there is no real finality here, and the final poem we are left with reminds us that “some of the best sermons / don’t have endings” (“Providence”).

Occasionally, a poem in the first and last sections will span a full page, but Barnett seems most at home with shorter pieces full of impactful couplets.  Lines like, “a match lifted from its neat white box / and struck on the afterlife bed,” (“viii”) stand beautifully within the white space that surrounds them.  Readers may often find themselves stopping to savor a few brief lines, but the form and shape of these poems is varied well from section to section, ensuring each is uniquely dynamic.

Though many gems may be uncovered throughout The Game of Boxes, the sequence that straddles the two halves of this collection shines brighter than any individual poem.  “Sweet Double, Talk-Talk” pulls readers into the corners of many darkened rooms, and what’s lurking there may be sudden and startling, vulgar and beautiful, but always enticing, luring us toward the final lines and a well-deserved rest.  Barnett’s second book is sure to leave readers of varying tastes both satisfied and delighted.

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