Taking inspiration from the curiosity cabinets of the late Renaissance, David Barber offers up in his second book an eclectic gallery of natural marvels and historical gleanings. Creation his chief subject, Barber concentrates on humankind’s quest to impose definition and significance on the natural world. These are poems that meditate on all manner of wondrous phenomena: falconry and funiculars; the knotted quipus of the Inca empire and the tulipmania of the Dutch Golden Age; the lore and language of field guides, epitaphs, beekeeping, and seafaring; the ghostly vestiges of the La Brea Tar Pits and the ancient library of Alexandria. The innovative suite of New World sutras, composed in haiku stanzas, riffs on the American genius for self-invention and epic ambition by calling up such landmark figures as John James Audubon, Harry Houdini, Babe Ruth, and Buster Keaton. Barber delves deeply into the realms of both popular culture and natural history with a formal and verbal precision rife with agile music, avid wordplay, and mordant wit.
The Spirit Level is the first collection by an exciting new voice in American poetry. David Barber opens his volume with epigraphs from Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop, then demonstrates both his gratitude to these masters of proportion and tone and also his independence from them. Representing the world as a place of feverish energies, Barber creates a virtuoso tension between playful, sometimes flamboyant, diction and the seriousness of his concerns. Balance and grace, but also wit and verbal energy, and a deft hand at shaping the poem, make Barber’s first book a superb debut.