A poet who relishes “the sort of research that gives me the chance to root around along the borderlines of history and legend, the actual and the apocryphal,” David Barber’s second book, Wonder Cabinet (Northwestern University Press, 2006), is a brilliant array of curiosities and fascinations rendered in poetry equally as intricate and intriguing. The collection is divided into three parts—in the first, poems that take historical phenomena, moments, characters, and landmarks as their subjects, in the second, “New World Sutras,” a union of Eastern and Western poetic forms, and great American personages, and in the third, poems that draw primarily from the poet’s own memories. In each poem, Barber creates a sense of wonder and, throughout the collection, explores its spectrum, from insight to captivation, befuddlement to awe. They neatly come together under their title—Wonder Cabinet—which literally is a place to collect objects of one’s curiosity.
David Barber is poetry editor at The Atlantic Monthly. His first book, The Spirit Level, won the Terrence Des Pres Prize. Barber’s poetry and criticism has appeared in a variety of publications, including New Republic, Field, New England Review, New York Times Book Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Paris Review, and Poetry.
AH: Could you explain what a wonder cabinet is? How and where did you learn about it? Did it immediately inspire any of the poems in the collection or the book as a whole? Or had you assembled the book and then the idea of the object worked with what you had created?
DB: Does it sound like something Lewis Carroll dreamed up? It’s a somewhat obscure frame of reference, but that wasn’t always the case. Wunderkammern, or art and curiosity cabinets, as they came to be loosely called, were a popular phenomenon stretching from the late Renaissance to the early Enlightenment era, and scholars now tend to think of them of as forerunners of modern museums. A wonder cabinet was literally a gallery or alcove where aristocrats with a bent for learning housed their personal collections of natural marvels and strange artifacts, oftentimes unheard-of relics and novel objects gleaned from the terra incognita of the New World on the early voyages of exploration and discovery.
The title materialized only after I began assembling the manuscript. I was hoping to play off both its metaphorical connotations and historical associations: a wonder cabinet was a quasi-scientific classification system in the age before Linnaeus came up with the gold standard of binomial nomenclature, but it also served as an idiosyncratic personal archive that reflected a collector’s fascinations and fancies. Wonder back then was considered to be a kind of prerequisite for knowledge and understanding: all the stuff you acquired for your cabinet was supposed to function as a panoply of objects for aesthetic and spiritual contemplation. There’s a terrific little book on the subject that really sold me on the idea: Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, by the former New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler. It’s a portrait of a fellow out in LA who set up a public gallery called the Museum of Jurassic Technology – in essence, a newfangled wonder cabinet. Along the way, Weschler offers a crash course in the history of wonder cabinets that’s quite captivating. It got me to thinking – wasn’t my collection of poems something like that, an eclectic hodgepodge of affinities that’s rife with objects and images constellating around art and nature? I’ll have to leave it to my readers to decide whether the concept works as bona fide organizing principle or more as an apologia for indulging my incorrigible antiquarian proclivities.
AH: When I read “Relic,” I didn’t initially notice the title. When I finished, I thought that it must be the title poem – its form and sound, images and language, suggested my own idea of what a wonder cabinet is. What poem do you think most closely represents what you are doing in the whole in the book? An actual wonder cabinet?
DB: That poem predates the book title, but I think you’re onto something. The “relic” in question here – I don’t think I’m giving too much away – is a bird’s nest, and the primary technical challenge I set for myself was seeing if I could evoke the small wonder of that childhood remnant without explicitly naming it. It’s an impulse in keeping with the spirit of the Anglo-Saxon riddle poems that I’ve long been fond of: among other things, it’s a mode of composition that places all its chips on the mysterious workings of metaphor. The names of things were the first poems, you might say, and many of those names were metaphors from the get-go. I confess I also had Donne’s marvelous poem “The Relique” in mind: his “bracelet of bright hair around the bone” finds a deliberate echo in the strands of human hair that these resourceful songbirds had woven into their nest. A nest is another kind of inspired jumble, I suppose, and the craft that goes into it (in both senses of the term) might be said to resemble word-craft insofar as language can also be seen as an act of creation and imagination where form meets function and artifice and happenstance become inextricably intertwined. I’m not sure I’d want to pinpoint any one poem that operates as a touchstone for the book as a whole, but seeing as my poems abound in relics, perhaps it’s fair to say that this “wonder cabinet” of mine might also be thought of as something of a reliquary.
AH: Which came first—the poems, individually, collecting over time, or the frame idea for the book? Did the three sections of the book—and we’ll touch on them more later—arrange themselves after the poems had been completed or did you have these sections in mind?
DB: I almost always work poem by poem. The exception to that rule of thumb here is the middle section, the “New World Sutras.” That was conceived as a sequence from the outset, though I wasn’t certain how many pieces I would ultimately wind up with. The three sections suggested themselves later on. This isn’t a book that proceeds along some narrative arc or thematic through-line – I think of it more as a mosaic of preoccupations and predilections.
AH: All the poems work from a past moment and/or a historical subject. The variety, not only of characters, things, places, but also of eras, is striking, and certainly a hallmark of the book. Beyond the sense of wonder that you cultivate in each poem, not even their time period or even age of civilization is common amongst them. With such diverse material, how did you find your subjects? Was there a method to the research that went into these poems? Or did you just wait for something to catch your eye and then seek more information?
DB: I plead guilty to reveling in profusion and time-traveling with impunity. There’s a fabled fragment from a poem by the ancient Greek poet Archilochos that you may have heard of: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one great thing. I guess my nature is such that I’ve thrown in my lot with the foxes. And with the magpies too, come to think of it: I read a good bit of history, I like rummaging around in the past, and the germ for a poem often begins when the glint of something from long ago and far away catches my roving eye. Why the obsession with history? I think it springs from a strong elegiac impulse: I find all kinds of imaginative sustenance in unearthing talismanic details about lives and places and habits of mind that can only really be summoned back imaginatively. That goes hand in hand with my yen for apostrophes – directly addressing one’s thoughts to those who are long departed or otherwise out of the picture. I certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of impersonating a historian, but I relish the sort of research that gives me the chance to root around along the borderlines of history and legend, the actual and the apocryphal.
Let me give you an example. In the poem “Shades of Alexandria” I’m trying to conjure up the atmosphere of the storied Alexandria Library in Egypt, which by common consent was the foremost repository of texts and papyrus scrolls in the ancient world. Scholars flocked there from all over the Hellenic world, and some classical wag famously dubbed it “The Birdcage of the Muses.” But even the most accurate historical account of the library is an imaginative reconstruction: it burned to the ground and has haunted scholars and historians ever since. I did a fair bit of reading up on the Library when I was writing the poem, looking into sources both ancient and modern, but my own small imaginative contribution to the long tradition of trying to fathom what it must have been like there when it was the world’s greatest seat of learning was the notion that anyone who spends a lot of time in libraries is in some sense communing with the ghosts of its ancient denizens. It so happens that I worked in a few libraries when I was a grub, and the poem attempts to superimpose layered images and references in such a way that the past and the present blends into a seamless continuum or storyline, at once strange and strangely familiar. The past is prologue, as no less of a bookish mage than Prospero tells us.
AH: Do you have a favorite era to work with? A favorite character or subject represented in the collection?
DB: I’d be hard-pressed to single out one or the other. After all, poets can get away with being omnivorous in a fashion that most certified scholars and historians usually can’t in our age of specialized knowledge. We can go about our business by taking a leaf from the bees – lighting out for wherever the good patches of clover can be found at any particular moment. That said, I often seem to be drawn to 19th-century English and American history – the cusp of modernism, if you will – because it’s so rich in fertile ideas and images and ironies and because it’s a sightline onto a time when the arts and sciences hadn’t yet gone their separate ways.
In that respect, perhaps the best candidate for the book’s patron saint is the title figure in “Ode to William Wells.” Wells was an American physician who had a practice in London in the early 1800s and dabbled in natural history on the side – or as it was often called then, “natural philosophy.” He’s completely obscure now, but in his day he was best-known for a scientific paper he presented to the Royal Society called, of all things, “Essay on Dew.” It was quite literally a research paper on condensation and evaporation, and it touched off a something of a stir in learned circles because it embodied what was just then becoming codified as the scientific method. The young Charles Darwin later read it with avid interest, so the story goes. Wells is the sort of ghost I like communing with, I guess – someone whose private obsession takes on a storybook element, reminding us of how fleeting yet how freighted our ruling passions can be.
AH: I was surprised to find notes at the back, and more surprised to find they actually enhanced my reading of those poems—why those and not others, though? I thought all of the poems were written in such a way that I would have been fine without the notes. What was your reason for including them?
DB: It’s my hope that most of the poems gloss themselves, but I also felt the need to acknowledge my source material and let readers in on the paper trail. There’s a wonderful line in Frost’s poem, “Mowing” – “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows” – and in a number of cases I thought it was only right and proper that I disclose the facts and texts that germinated the lines on the page. I wasn’t trying to pull an Eliot – those copious notes at the end of The Wasteland were part and parcel of his modernist modus operandi predicated on textual montage and intellectual pentimento – so much as trying to be a diverting master of ceremonies, giving credit where credit is due while at the same time offering curious readers some additional toeholds on the material. After all, footnotes and endnotes aren’t just scholarly apparatus – they can be an art unto themselves, and artifice too, little winks and nudges at readers or leaps of imagination by other means.
AH: All the poems in Wonder Cabinet have forms that work so adeptly with their content, language, sentiment. For some poets, certain elements of poetry have priority over others, or there is an order of application; for you, is there a hierarchy of importance, and if so, where do you place form? Is it last, and you shape the poem to what you think suits it best? Or is it first, perhaps a frame you want to work the material into? Looking at the “New World Sutras,” the thread-like form seems to suite each of the subjects perfectly, and the image and sentiment you convey about each is marvelously precise. With these poems, specifically, did form come first or did the various characters work themselves into this shape?
DB: There’s no question about it: I have a yen for working (and playing) with form. But of course, poetic form takes many forms, doesn’t it? I’ve never been one to pluck received forms off the shelf and see if I can build a better mousetrap: for me, forms aren’t molds to pour language into so much as patterns and precedents that operate something like magnetic fields. Formal decisions are always a vital element of composition for me, but I want to create the circumstances whereby the poem can discover its own formal order, and ideally, its own particular sense of formal inevitability, so that form and feeling become a seamless whole. Marianne Moore said it best, I think: “Ecstasy affords the occasion, and expediency determines the form.”
Does that make me a formalist? I don’t mind the label, so long as it’s used loosely: the kind of formalism I practice is more akin to freemasonry than any strict adherence to metrical doctrine. More and more I find myself thinking of form first and foremost in terms of prosody: the sense of line has a lot to say about determining the ultimate shape of the poem and sustaining the rhythmical and acoustical dynamics of what Frost liked to call “the sound of sense.” The verse line is a marvelously versatile and flexible device for notating the rise and fall of the voice, and that holds true whether you’re working with songlike cadences or looking to produce the effect of conversational speech. Otherwise, why write in lines at all?
The sutras are to some extent a different kettle of fish. As I’ve said elsewhere, my starting point for the “New World Sutras” sequence was discovering that the word “sutra” in Sanskrit literally means “thread” or “line” – in its original religious sense it referred to a pithy verse or aphorism, or a collection of such utterances. As a longtime enthusiast of aphorisms, epigrams, and the like, I couldn’t resist updating this concept a bit. So I tried marrying the contemplative scriptural conception of the Eastern sutra with the robust tradition of commemorating historical figures who left some indelible mark on the American imagination and attained an archetypal stature in popular culture. It was also a way of paying homage to an eclectic posse of my favorite American geniuses, folks like John James Audubon and Louis Armstrong and Buster Keaton. What I came up with was a sort of hybrid nonce form: casting the poems in so-called haiku stanzas as a ritualized construct for channeling the spirit (and oftentimes the actual words and images) of that pantheon of mine. Part of the impulse here was to give voice to a talismanic brand of American ingenuity and ambition as personified by certain archetypal personas who helped shape the culture as we know it, and to do so in a way that lent itself to a gnomic and epigrammatic style of expression. Working in syllabics gave me a fixed unit of measure that served as a connective tissue – a common thread, if you will – to further bind together these otherwise sui generis individuals into a “dream team” of American paragons.
Join us tomorrow, dear reader, for more from David Barber in Part II. - AH