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A Poet of the American Storm: On Landscape with Bloodfeud by Wendy Barnes

by Amy Klein | Contributing Writer

Landscape with Bloodfeud
Wendy Barnes
University of Massachusetts Press, 2022

What kind of strength does it take to leave home? As the United States seems ready to catch fire, Wendy Barnes’s debut collection, Landscape with Bloodfeud, urges us to ask ourselves, how can we bear witness to a history that we must move beyond? In poems that reveal a microcosm of the U.S. in her home state of Louisiana, Barnes not only critiques the rise of environmental exploitation and racial capitalism, but also confronts the moral questions that critics of these social systems face: how are we complicit in the violence that engulfs us, and can we create a different culture by facing a truer history of our own lives?

Barnes’s poems reckon with the inner transformation of a “part-time penitent,” a rebellious Tom Sawyer figure who rafts away from home for a better life in the big city up North, but whose memories, as they surface, belie the cavalier swagger of the American folk hero. The speaker in Barnes’s poems longs for a fading way of life—plastic margarita cups under flickering porchlights, the clear, cold water that formed the source of the oily bayou, the sounds of aging jazz musicians singing amid a backdrop of new condos. It is impossible to romanticize communities who have known such storms, violence, and poverty, and Barnes’s speaker knows this well. Yet she feels homesick, believing there may be hope for her home someday. Barnes’s poems reckon transparently with the concept of redemption. Does the white speaker deserve it? Do any white people deserve it? Yet the moral truth that Barnes asserts most powerfully is the emerging American responsibility to articulate what this culture was. Documenting the truth of these lives, she argues, may invite the possibility of a different future.

Barnes’s work hinges on the interpenetration of self and environment. In “The Swamp Hag’s Vigil,” the embattled American finds her mirror in the devastation we have wrought on our marshes, our rivers, and our borderlands. Phosphine bubbles from the semiconductor industry into the mouth of an old swamphag, an inversion of the anima of the water, who acknowledges that she is more human than powerful. “I could say I spit the greeny orbs / into the swamp . . . to stopper the throat of the tyrant, burn the smirk from a CEO,” she confesses. “But that’s a pretty way to claim I own enough magic to spark an act with a word.” Having ventured to live on land, among Americans, the speaker became “another girl . . . pink and dumb / as an azalea,” one lonely enough as an old woman to return to the swamp, where her mouth at least gives life to a “nest / of glowflies” among the pollution. The merging of the perverted swamp with the power of a woman outspoken in her “hoary . . . infertile” age sparks light that reveals the fight of nature to survive exploitation.

Owning her own passivity, her inability to “spare a single soul / from harm,” the aging water spirit acknowledges that she has gained, through her own exile, the ability to warn others of danger. “Give me mudflat or slough, give me another purpose / let me be alarm!” she calls. This feminine embrace of her own degradation casts in stark relief the narcissistic culture that enacts violence against nature without conscience and with impunity—the neglect of the ”tanker” that passively “drain[s] its sludge into the river,” the greed of “the governor” who “tally[s] up his gambling debts / . . . his prison cells.” Who faces the consequence of this violence? Those for whom “syllables squirm” with fearful life on the “tongue.” Vulnerable bodies carry the fear of and brunt of environmental exploitation.  

But to be vulnerable means also to know one’s own capacity for harm—and therefore one’s own capacity to regenerate through action: to “drop each word into the dirt / hope a fat green seed takes root.” Barnes asserts the value of the “vigil”—if only in words, the sounds we make when we cry out to others may communicate more than we intend. They may reflect a capacity for hope, a faith that the social fabric will expand to embrace us. Perhaps it is this faith that expands the social fabric. That Barnes cries not only for herself, but as a “witness” of the “wrack wing / Jackdaw and blackbird,” of the “cane” on fire and the “swamp gas,” of the “Luna moth whipped brittle landward / on tightening wind,” of the birds who “drop from” our sky, speaks to her vision of belonging. Her negative capability, in grief, grows to include beings who live without language. The tactile sensation of speaking the words “wrack wing / Jackdaw and blackbird” renders these bodies real in a way that forces the reader to move out of “inertia.” What can language do to address the climate crisis? It can offer connection across realms of understanding, bridges between beings.

In “The Hunt,” Barnes evokes the awareness of her own participation in cycles of violence and exploitation. The landscape itself again becomes animated with portents of harm, as Belle, the hunting dog, “scatter[s] / a curse of night thrush / from the scrub.” Witnessing her father shoot a raccoon, the young speaker becomes animal with empathy—and at the same time, becomes a woman, bloody and bellowing in protest:

Before that shot,
I thought I was a certain
kind of animal,

but when it hit,
I hissed and chittered.
I howled
louder than any grown man.

Then I fell and am
still falling, sinking under
the velvet stain,

am the raccoon tumbling forever
into the jaws of the bloodhound,
am the bloodhound
bellowing up
at the moonless sky.

The precise, methodical cadence of the violence as measured in these line breaks suggests its rote repetition over time. There are cycles of entanglement in which generational trauma repeats itself, and in the conditions of white womanhood, the victim of violence can become a perpetrator. In this poem, while the speaker—like the bloodhound—feels complicit in the death of the vulnerable subject, her primal grief pours out in spontaneous howls alongside the blood of the being she has killed.

Barnes confronts the violence of whiteness directly in “How My Forebears Whitewashed History,” as the speaker questions her grandfather about his participation in the Ku Klux Klan. “Sure, we wore the sheets,” he allows,” but he denies harming anyone. “It was a social club, he says. / We mostly just went to get drunk.” Barnes’s speaker sees through his alibi. “I turn and look for some shape to the absence / the lie lives behind.” Barnes critiques whiteness as a screen, an absence of reality, a failure to see oneself as an agent of violence and to see this violence’s victims. It is Barnes’s mission to decry the self-glorifying myths of the white “generations” who claim to have “punched / a living from bottomland and quarrelsome / beasts.” Again, a voice of the living earth recalls the speaker to the truth, as “a loon wails from inside / the marsh” in response to her grandfather’s lies. Just as the cry of this bird interrupts the poem, so the poem begins to sing beyond the speaker’s awareness. The fantasy of white innocence—in the past and in the present—yields to the poem’s counter-imagination, as the unseen bird’s song evokes the voices of Black communities who continue to grieve and resist, to heal and grow. Finding nothing beyond the cry of the bird, Barnes’s speaker “can see only a hole / out in the piney, out in the suffering / woods.” Earth repeats memory, even as whiteness distorts it. Like Walter Benjamin’s palimpsest of modernity, historical violence lives in the now; the destruction of the forest reflects the evidence of human pain. Yet what Barnes’s speaker sees, hears, and feels as she interrogates her own history leads her closer to a reality beyond the white American myth of progress. Barnes’s vision of history includes the white speaker as complicit in harm—and as emerging into self-awareness.

Perhaps self-awareness is the price of leaving what one knows, and leaving what one knows is the price of self-awareness. There is a liminality to these poems which situate themselves at the borders of the land: sweeping along with the rubble into the levee of New Orleans, floating up from a “Sunken City,” and flowing into the gulf of Barataria Bay—a “Self-portrait in Solid, Liquid, and Gas.” Growing up working class in “Affliction Parish,” the speaker desires the feeling of home, and yet finds home itself to feel precarious. In the title poem, “Landscape with Bloodfeud,” the mobile home “we bought . . . from a Florida woman / with wrists covered in suicide scars” and “dragged . . . around from town to town / truck tires burning up I-10 . . . back to Louisiana” was “our own home. / But home is / the permanent question, / the always unsteady / premise.” It is easier to transmute oneself, to “roam the earth / trailerless” than to feel trapped, “tied down / with metal straps and bolted / to the earth.” Yet the precarity of her childhood, with its “pesticides / that bled into our well,” has left the speaker with a “familiar rage,” and with many identities: the one who reads cartoon versions of history in school and the one who reacts to their injustice, the one who desires safety and connection with others and the one who must always be poised to fight to survive. Barnes’s speaker recalls family, childhood, and the beauty of raking a yard of rocks to try to grow a garden—at the same time, acknowledging that her own life was never guaranteed. “Who casts / her bone dice across nostalgia’s / ruined map?” the speaker wonders. While Whitman saw himself as many voices, Barnes contains “an archive of storm.” What this poet in exile collects are images of uncertainty, of violence, and of grief—and yet her memories stand in powerful contrast to the unawareness of the wealthy whites of the North, into whose ranks she cannot quite assimilate.

Barnes’s experiences as a working-class woman empower her to critique whiteness from a perspective of precarity. After Hurricane Katrina, In “The Revenant Addressed the Victims,” she speaks as both “the developer in me” and the one who “picked through glass, / wondering what could ever / make me whole.” Searching for herself ironically renders the speaker more permeable to alternate perspectives on reality. In “At Congo Square,” in New Orleans, as she faces an illustration in which the artist has removed the individuality of the Black singers he has drawn, the speaker recognizes the “violence of depiction” in the way the artist has cancelled out the experience of each person: “in bloodless / simplicity, the features uniform / from face to face, each mouth / open to the same round note.” The speaker asserts that racism erases Black voices, denying individuals their rights to their own songs. She feels empathy with the woman in the illustration who is just beginning to dance—and yet, “sees / that even in this act of release / she will be captured / by the eyes that bind her.” Interrogating her own reasons for depicting these people whose stories are not her own, the speaker wonders, “Do I do this woman further violence / now, in this description?”

Ultimately, the emotional center of this poem is not the theoretical question of whether “any art can atone,” as the speaker wonders in its penultimate lines. Rather, the poem resounds in its depiction of the visceral experience of recognizing one’s own presence—and the presence of other individuals—as participants within history: “And I felt the full weight of my body / in my feet, a tingling / between me and the paving stones, / as the artwork’s full offense fell on me for the first time, / and I saw plain my own failure / to witness.” Barnes finds an antidote to the dissociation of whiteness in the physical experience of regenerating an empathic connection to others. The precision of her physical imagery suggests that embodiment creates empathy, and that our nervous system can ground us in the need to address injustice. Perhaps this moment is a form of homecoming—not the one the speaker had imagined, but the recognition of a more true self.

Barnes’s Landscape with Bloodfeud swells with a current of rage that is interrogative, rather than prescriptive. At the “Mardi Gras Ball,” the speaker “ransacks the dreams” of the state governor, who fantasizes about “death maidens / in tubesocks.” “You don’t know us,” she accuses him. “We say fuck and are gigantic, straddle / your sawn-off giggle stick, then stomp around the train-set city.” The insights of these young women who see beyond male fantasy render them at once powerful, questioning of authority, and alone—“alone / with our bigness and firecrackers, / eyeliner and moonbeams.” The bravado and freedom of the voice who curses out the governor segues surprisingly into the vulnerability of the voice who stares at the moon and dreams. But perhaps these voices are one and the same, the speaker who “smashe[s]” the police’s “souped-up cruisers” in the bus station parking lot and the one who mourns that she has “left the stars permanently / fractured / by those cracks in their windshield.” Does hope inhere in the decision to reject fantasy and confront truth? The speaker in Landscape with Bloodfeud refers to herself as a “revenant,” one who returns, but also one who dreams. Like Pipilotti Rist, the video artist who smashed cars with a baseball bat to create a moving image of her rage, Barnes’s work opens up creative possibilities for women to act as agents of change. 

The choice to document the truth of our flawed “composition”—“to return to the city, at least one of the mind”—can help us grow beyond the culture we have inherited, Barnes suggests. In “Danziger Bridge, Redux,” the past and the present of white supremacy converge on the real bridge where police shot and killed James Brissette and Ronald Madison, two unarmed Black men, less than a week after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city. “There are two sides to a bridge,” the poem begins, “but the other side flashes / and fades like an illusion. Are there two sides?” the speaker wonders. As cars idle on their opposite shores, the speaker envisions on one side, the myth of American progress: a wagon procession of white settlers preserved in mud. Yet “their progress” is “suspended” as they hold “vengeance” while maintaining “innocence.” On the other shore, a winged deity watches the wrecked homes of the hurricane engulf the river, as police helicopters beat back his approach. No American institution or god acts to protect the two Black men pushing a shopping cart towards the police cruiser. “Then the gunshots. / And then there are no more sides.”

As the myths of her past collapse, the speaker in Landscape with Bloodfeud invites readers to write of their own complicity in history, rather than resorting to myths of innocence. When we are longer selves in exile, but selves who find homes in feeling, we may gain the courage to resist violence and create stronger connections with one another. As she articulates the failure of the so-called American Dream, Barnes invites us to imagine and to create a new American reality.

Amy Klein is a poet, writer, and songwriter. Her essays and journalism on women in political art have appeared in The Believer and the Best Music Writing book series and have been highlighted as essential reading by NPR. Her poetry has been published in Prelude, Salt Hill, and the Harvard Advocate. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize. She has released three albums of original songs (Don Giovanni Records) and has toured internationally in the critically acclaimed rock band Titus Andronicus. As a leader in feminist activism in the arts, she has been featured in media from Pitchfork to the New York Times Magazine. She holds a BA in English from Harvard and an MFA in Writing from Columbia.