Double Poetry Review: Janna Barber & Chris Wheeler

We make no secret of our love for good poetry here, and so we’re always delighted when those in our writing community release collections into the world. Like a flight of doves flapping deliverance into the sky, the effort of herding unruly poems into concert with each other, and making them work together, is cause for celebration.

Therefore, we’re excited to present to you two new collections from our ranks: Janna Barber’s Invisible Hope: Poetry for Ragamuffins and Chris Wheeler’s Solace: Poems for the Broken Season.

Janna Barber
Invisible Hope: Poetry for Ragamuffins

Invisible Hope opens with a painting by Barber detailing the sun rising over the ocean. The outlines of the water and waves and that of our local star are blurred, but the image is close enough to see the quilted cross-hatching of canvas fibers, suggesting both an examination—or a cross-examination—of hope and a distance from the thing hoped for.

The works are divided into three sections: hymns, prayers, and meditations. These are also bodily postures, respectively those of outpouring, supplicating, and internalizing. Barber’s poetry is itself very embodied, or fleshly. Most of the poems are left-justified, though leaning more towards a normalcy or plainness than any strictness or formality. Visually, we are reminded that this is the stuff of everyday earth.

Yet in the opening poem, “Man, Myth, Mine,” Barber launches unapologetically into the stylized, elemental abstractions of the Holy Trinity.

Triune God loves
and loves.

And loves.

Father, Master of the Universe
sends his one and only son—a Herculean sacrifice
filled with fury and passion.

Humanity swoons.

The poem is iconographic, highly symmetrical in its line breaks. Its placement at the head of the chapbook imposes a leitmotif on the careful reader: this is where flesh meets Spirit, where the temporal sings its implicit eternity. It’s a theme repeated throughout the collection. Barber reveals various characters. There is the closet drunk in “Unknown.”

To look at her
you’d never think
she was the sort
to hide a flask
in a sock drawer.

There is the over-prim suppliant in “Bread and Blood.”

“You could always dip the wafer
in the goblet,” my friend said.
“It’s the least messy option, the
clean sanitary way.”

Then there’s the God-who-is-flesh of “Amateur Prayer Hour,” seen through a lens of modern, English-speaking Mariology.

Sometimes it feels
like God
is my wife,
and she’s three
months pregnant
with our baby boy.

Only, last week she said
she’s not sure we’re ready

Yet, despite the obvious salinity and dust of their existence, these characters—along with the ever-present you, both the second person generic and the you of the poet—are all seen through the lens of redemptive potentiality. Barber hears the high-voltage hum of unseen power behind the commonalities of daily life. And, as might be expected in such a tango of the sublime and the possibly-sublimated, she at last turns an unflinching gaze on the ultimate paradox of existence.

If faith is a seed, then hope
is the hand that buries it. And love
is the death
which give birth
to a mighty, mighty tree.


— “What Remains”

Chris Wheeler
Solace: Poems for the Broken Season

Chris Wheeler’s collection is inherently borne out of creative community, both in that it’s the product of a successful crowdfunding campaign and that it features moody, rich monochrome art by Chicago painter Josie Koznarek. Koznarek’s cover design is a white paper crane, floating on the water in a vast sea of dark. This tells you a lot.

Solace is divided into seasonal movements, headed by Koznarek’s ink paintings, in which a woman stares into surreal distances against evocative backdrops. There is an ethereality to Wheeler’s poetry. The seasons are seasons of the mind and heart. Fittingly, it also feels liturgical in process, beginning with the title poem as an invocation.

I would give birth
to a thousand fluttering
things: paper swans and
metal wings, a sewing
needle and a swelling drop
of red that splashes into blue

Birth brings the subject immediately into the familial realm. Structurally, “Solace” is nearly a prose poem. Rhythmically, it functions as a soliloquy, the weight of each line growing, from the trimeter of I would give birth to the heptameter of to care while she was in my keeping, if only to wrap. Yet the crescendo is not in the voice, but in the breathless on-running of fatherly emotion evoked by the meter.

Even while writing about tangible things, the language rings of barely-obscured meta-narrative. “Vinterfelt,” a Norwegian word meaning ‘winter field,’ walks along the fallowed memories of an old stomping ground.

The wind off the field is honest.
It blows through me with force,
scent-shot with woodsmoke, steel, and snow-soaked sod.
The trail feels odd somehow,
but the wind I know too well.
I touch the naked maple set along the acre’s edge
and branded memories come to mind.

Wheeler approaches the landscape with a reader’s gift of prophecy, laying hands to things, smelling, listening, all the while being transported into otherness. The familial characters are also possessed of a deep humanity, yet it feels stretched thin, as though their numinous inner reality needs only one drop more to burst forth.

like he’s burning garbage
behind the house, a familiar
flavor once, acrid next,
like maybe he’s burning your
box of baseball cards or just
some newspaper, or both of
them together.


— “Elements; ii. The Smell of Smoke”

You are not quiet, my love.
You shout like an Indiana
evening, a cacophony carried
close to my chest.


— “Quiet”

There’s another motif: the humus of being human. These people are constructed of dust and ash, yet there remains the impenetrable, undeniable mystery of their life. The kids eat sand and a woman’s breath smells of cinnamon (“Elements”). A child is a fire and a plant and a sum of accumulate coal (“Burn on Steady”). A man does magic tricks on the cheap (“Chicago in Season IV”). What is clear is that a mere empirical assessment will not do. It will not yield the full scope of our spirit-body definition. More is required. This may be, to you, a confession, but poetry is a good place for confession to begin. All the old orthodox confessions, if not poetry, were at least poetical anyway.

You can find Invisible Hope here, and more at jannabarber.com.
Solace is available at chriswheelerwrites.com.

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