Book Review of Kaleidoscope by Tina Barr

KaleidoscopeReviewed by Vanessa Loh

The latest and perfectly named book of poems by Tina Barr, Kaleidoscope, carries the reader through thievery and wonder, devotion and sin, sickness and love, and from Tennessee to Turkey, in a rhythmical display of poetic vision. Barr plays words like music. The very tempo of that music, gears that unfold the tight weave of language threaded throughout, surprises the reader’s expectations with the breadth that Barr achieves from her palette of words.

As a testament to the unfolding motion of this work, the introductory poem, “In the Kaleidoscope’s Chamber,” is loaded with verbs that suggest just this sort of wheeling forward: turn, stretch, shift, incite, multiply, concoct, and spring—nearly poetry in themselves. Yet, Barr’s precise attunement to sensory perception—attending to every one of the five senses—and her pristine control over the movement of her words is evident at all times, though perhaps nowhere more so than in the final lines of the poem:

                                    …My husband’s hands
tab the keys, dicing white and black. My ears
arrange it as music; outside are birds, ushering us in.

With these lines Barr herself ushers us in as she implies the relationship between artist and audience is a partnership, and she invites the reader to make her own contributions as she participates in this poetry.

One of the things I admire about Barr’s work in this collection is that she rarely tells the reader how to feel or what to think of the ideas she presents. As if to make good on her invitation for readerly participation, Barr’s poems often end with a line that offers only conclusion where we might expect explanation. Like a kaleidoscope, she offers an arrangement of colors and asks the reader to find the patterns. A poem called “Dessert” finishes with the statement: “My grandmother crossed Park, got hit by a car, and thrown.” But what we are to make of this shocking occurrence, conveyed so plainly, is satisfyingly open-ended. Concluding assertions like this (as well as the one cited above), nearly characteristic of Barr’s poetry, are part of what make her work so exciting to read because they stimulate reflection on the part of the reader.

Or the closing lines in “Zabiba”:

                  He’s banged a prayer bruise
into his forehead, touched it to the ground
over and over. Like cantaloupes’ sweet navels.

The juxtaposition of tenderness and harm capture an incremental zooming in and out that is evident in the work as a whole. The harsh banging of the prayer bruise against the gentle piety in touching his head to the floor demonstrate a subtle honesty that can only be captured by a observer who is severely sympathetic and at the same time relentlessly objective. It is this kind of honesty that permeates the poems in this collection: Barr’s daring combination of emotional distance and depth engage the complexity of her subject.

Kaleidoscope is an artful euphony of words and ideas that, ticking round one poem into the next, display new and thought-provoking ways of seeing the interlocking patterns of experience.


Vanessa Loh is a graduate student at Temple University. She studies modernism and literary theory.

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