Posted on Aug 31, 2015 in Poetry

by Jackie Bartley
thirdstone press, 2004

I’m taking a private poetry class (actually it is just finishing) with poet Jackie Bartley. I heard about her from Jack Ridl – another poet whose most recent publication I will also review. I like Jackie’s poetry. It Juses both sides of her brain – left and right. This in part because Bartley drawn initially to the sciences, earning a BS in Biology and a BS in Medical Technology. For fifteen years she worded as a Medical Technologist, before falling in love with poetry.

Her MFA completed in 1988 – she now weaves the scientific, the accurate and precise into her poems. One of our assignments was to write ekphrastik poetry – poetry that describes a work of art. It could written in response to something as famous as a Bernini sculpture or an Edward Hopper painting. Or it could poetry written in response to something as primitive as Hobo signs. Jackie’s book – Hobo Signs – draws on her ekphrastik response to a collection she found in a reference books.

She likes reference books she told us, the quirky kinds you can find in libraries. She hauled the oversized book into the class one day – showed us Chinese signs, railroad signs and sure enough – hobo signs. They stayed with her, these signs, the stories behind them, the people who created them. Here’s what Jackie says in her front piece: Migrant workers and vagrants who hitch from town to town by rail have been called hoboes since the late 19th century. Over the years, these transients, like other marginalized or ostracized people, developed a system of symbols to communicate with one another. They scrawled these signs on fence posts, trees, shed, boulders, anywhere those who followed might see them and recognize their meaning.

The titles of her poems are the literal meanings of the signs: Fresh Water and a Safe Place to Camp, No Point Going in This Direction, The House is Well Guarded, If You Are Sick They Will Help You. For this slim volume of poetry a friend recreated each hobo symbol in woodcut. Printed in black ink on cream pages, they remind me of some ancient text, newly dug from Egyptian caves, a resurrected find. Sample a few lines: From – FRESH WATER AND A SAFE PLACE TO CAMP

THOUGH CERTAIN WORDS TAKE THE SHAPE OF COMFOT IN THE MIND. WORDS LIKE FRESH, MEANING POTABLE, MEANING SWEET. SO THAT SOIL THERE BEARS OFFERINGS ¬– WILD CARROT, ONION GRASS, BLACKBERRY BRANBLE NOT YET PICKED CLEAN BY GRACKLES. From – A KINDHEARTED WOMAN –¬ GIVE HER A MOVING STORY LEAVE THESE STONES IN THE ROAD TO SIGNIFY WOMAN WHOSE SPITI RESONATES WITH THE ROOT NOTE OF ALL LIVING THINGS, WHO SERVES LEMONADE ANDPIE IN THE SAHD OF A GENREOUS TREE, AN ELM, PERHAPS, AMERICAN ELM WITH CROWN SO WIDE IT COVERS A CITY BLOCK. TREE DOOMED TO WITHER AND DIE FROM A FUNGUS THAT CLOTS ITS VESSELS, CHOKES IT DRY. THE WAY ONE VICE CAN CANEL A DOZEN VIRTURES. THE WAY LUCK MOCKS EFFORT AND GOOD INTENT. THE TREE WILL BE FELLED WITHING THE MONTH, SLIGHT DEPRESSION IN THE GROUND, AN EMPTINESS, NO PLACE FOR WIND TO REST.

You hear her penchant for the scientific, the exact, and yet also the philosopher, the poet, leaving us with – as W.H Auden put it – “memorable language” we can’t forget. If you care to read more – email the author to find out how to order copies – bartley@hope.edu.