Smog Mother, John Wall Barger’s sixth collection of poetry, begins with an epigraph from the 1959 French New Wave film Hiroshima Mon Amour, written by Marguerite Duras:
SHE: The reconstructions have been made as authentically as possible.
The films have been made as authentically as possible.
The illusion, it’s quite simple, the illusion is so perfect that tourists cry.
One can always scoff, but what else can a tourist do, really, but cry?
Hiroshima Mon Amour follows two unnamed fictional paramours—one French and one Japanese—who meet in the city still ravaged from the atomic bomb dropped by Americans during the second world war. What, the lovers challenge each other, is true or false? The film depicts a common quandary for any writer of nonfiction on how to reconstruct the truth as authentically as possible with enough luster to attract readers.
In Smog Mother, John Wall Barger is our speaker-seer. Through his eyes, we experience kind connections among strangers, the chaos of public disorder, and the bonding love between friends and partners. While crisscrossing the Asian continent by bus, an Enfield motorcycle, or aboard the Trans-Mongolian railway, Barger repeatedly implores the reader to look, listen, and stay present with him. In the opening poem, the epic and titular “Smog Mother”, Barger addresses his readers with an invocation:
O reader listen closely lean in yes you just you yes
Throughout the collection, Barger’s work moves with a degree of cinematic flourish, particularly with his epic poems “Smog Mother”, “Samovar”, and “Dukkha.” It’s as if our speaker-seer is magnified under the lens of the camera witnessing that around him before the seer’s lens pans to an individual—a person, an animal, a natural element, and then we zoom into the encounter between the seer to the subject matter he is writing on. Often, what envelopes Barger to his subjects is his curiosity of a shared, personal connection.
In “Woman on a Hong Kong Bus at Night”, it is the empathy one stranger gives to another. In this case, it is a tired woman who falls asleep on the shoulder of Barger while riding the bus. We know nothing of this woman say for the initial scowl she presents him when he takes the seat next to hers, and as anyone who has ridden the bus knows, public transit offers a myriad of opportunities for personal encounters with strangers:
I wish this were a different world
One where we could lean on a stranger
The woman’s grinding teeth, her drool on his hand remind him of his desire for his wife Tiina who sits behind him, and this sensation causes him to reflect that without physical connection to loved ones,
this life is torture,
torquere, twisting the child out of the adult.
While there are many illuminating encounters among strangers, Barger’s prose equally shimmers while he muses on his relationships to those closest to him. In the elegiac poem “Dying in Dharamsala”, Barger vividly renders a portrait of his friend Carlos who appears on the page as both dying and lively at the same time:
And we believe it,
how could we not believe it?
For God’s sake,
just look at his elfin grin,
He is beautiful. And yet
It is poems like this, where Barger complicates the expected consequences of rendering the dying—the inevitable pity, sorrow, and despair—with love and tenderness, that his work really shines.
Tiina is a looming presence in this collection, and however brief her appearances are, it is clear that she reserves a special place in Barger’s writing. In “Dukkha”, while reflecting on a translated passage of the Indian mystic and poet Kabír, Barger worries about his feverish wife asleep in another room:
I have been wondering
What pain we share
And where we intersect
My tin ceiling drips
The hand of mist reaching in
I’m anxious about Tiina
His anxiety of Tiina’s pain seamlessly shifts to the pain Barger imagines the surviving town inhabitants of an earthquake experienced, or the pain that protestors felt after a Tibetan leader was arrested. Whether it be his wife or the friends he muses on, or the strangers and animals that he encounters by chance, Barger dispenses empathy to all. Pain, in its various forms, often serves as reverence for Barger’s melodious and philosophical parsing. He acutely delves into that eternally hard-pressed space that we as humans can feel a multitude of feelings at once—not an easy task for any tender-hearted writer to attempt! Life will always throw us curveballs, and therefore we can experience joy right along with heartache; this is part of the human experience. Barger masterfully probes these deep questions with solicitude.
“Sipping Tequila with a Friend on My Roof under the Cold Blowtorch Moon” is a particular standout poem that showcases Barger’s enlightening paradox of enjoying time spent with a friend on the unfortunate precipice of passing away:
What does it say about me
that I can feel joy
while bad things
happen? Is joy a thief
climbing in the window
we should clobber
over the head?
Further on in the poem, Barger attempts to honor and affirm what many of us feel when pressed into moments of sorrow and joy, lamenting that
It is forbidden
to love hurt things
more than nature does.
But joy, joy is the taproot.
We are allowed
to feel it.
In a surprising coda harkening back to Duras’s screenplay, Barger’s empathy is quickly turned inward, a shift that allows the reader additional clarity into Barger’s intentions with this collection. We too are impressed upon to see that what is around us may look the same, that life may proceed as it always has, but something about us, as with Barger in the coda, is different, altered with a greater wisdom and compassion for all life.
John Wall Barger’s Smog Mother is a searing and honest construction of imagistic poetry that sees the world with its flaws and its beauty. It’s a must-read for anyone seeking a book that exudes compassion and empathy for its subject matters. Fans of physical books will also love Smog Mother for its beautiful design. Thick, black pages partition the book into sections, and it features running images of a lone dog, emblematic of the canines who make appearances in several of Barger’s poems. The overall effect is visually stunning, and only adds to the alure of this finely crafted collection from a skilled seer and poet like Barger.
Robyn Earhart‘s work has appeared in Barren Magazine, Columbia Journal online, and the Under Review. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota with her husband and pets.