Beasts and Violins is a collection of American narrative poetry addressing themes of life and work in the western United States. The poems read like broken country songs sung from a paved farm: dead deer and train trips, a dog at the edge of the fire. Beasts and Violins begins with a dark birth and finishes at peace on the water, with the necessary stops in between.
Caleb Barber’s fortuitous debut onto the American poetry scene strikes me as every bit as consequential and clarifying as those of his recognizable mentors—Spicer, Hugo, Wright and Carver. Having absorbed them, he’s done what no one could have taught him: given honest and singular voice to the painful extremities of being both beast and violin, brutish and fragile, mired in the flesh, yet bent on not being entirely at its mercy.
Lorca wrote of the sphinx dropping “a stone roof on the lyrical butterflies.” Barber’s uncompromising dialogues with the animal side of being human, similarly crushes our illusions, our too pretty notions of ourselves.
In razor’s edge language, he breaks open the mad harmonica of our unreasonable hungers, our tender fumblings, and our unpredictable natures. What I greatly admire, however, is that he is writer enough to leave us with an uneasy feeling of having been demolished and perhaps not exactly rebuilt—or not anyhow in a lyrical, transformative way, but rather in the solid and fecund way of mushrooms gathered as bounty from sites of decay.
Caleb Barber currently works in an aerospace machine shop, where he often composes his poems on a clipboard while delivering machined parts. Some of than rugged heavyweight material can be found in the sounds and rhythms and intentions of his unusual poems. He also worked in Arizona, Alaska, and Montana—and much of the flavor, fervor, and unflinching eye for realistic detail that readers find meaningful in Richard Hugo’s work can be found here, though Barber is by no means derivative. For one so young, he has an unusually mature, self-assured and convincing voice that seems to me full of promise.—David Wagoner
Caleb Barber is a large talent without any time for language that doesn’t strike and haunt. With his raw, chilling voice, Barber resuscitates the American narrative poem—a species dying into the anecdotal—so that it stands up again and sings. This book makes a reader more honest, more unflinching in face of the hard beauties of being alive.