Book Review

Catherine Barnett, The Game of Boxes, Graywolf Press, 2012

Reviewed by Linda Aschbrenner

In The Game of Boxes, Catherine Barnett writes about loss, loneliness, isolation, love, and longing with a fresh spin of fragments. The poems are spare, reined-in, oblique, misty, hinting of things not revealed, spoken. The restraint booms. Barnett occasionally (not nearly enough) addresses the topic of writing

The Game of Boxes won the 2012 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, a unique honor as it is the country’s only award that specifically recognizes and supports a poet’s second book.

Catherine Barnett’s first book, Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced,winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award, was published by Alice James Books in 2004. (The subject of the book: the death of her two young nieces in a plane crash.) Catherine Barnett’s awards are numerous: 2004 Whiting Writers’ Award, 2004 Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, 2005 Pushcart Prize, 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship. She works as an independent editor and teaches at the New School and New York University. She studied at Princeton University and at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful, the first of the three sections in The Game of Boxes, consists of 30 one-page lyric epistles to the world, some in the voice of a child, or children. Unhappiness or wariness of emotionally distant parents, as well as outright dread of life, are well-voiced in 14 poems, all titled “Chorus”:

    we are as shhhh as we can be         page 6

    they swear we’re fine,
    we’re resilient,                 page 7

    Everyone asks what we’re afraid of
    but we aren’t supposed to say.              page 18

    The mothers keep promising clear skies
    but when we look up
    it’s all clouded over, …              page 25

The remaining poems in this section are in the voice of a parent. In two poems, a mother gazes upon her sleeping son. The poems steep in knowledge of the fragility and transience of life, the limitations of love. In “Categories of Understanding”: “I can only speak the way light / falls, the way the cotton sheet / lays itself over his sleeping or resting / or dissolving body, touching him with / its ephemera, its oblivion.” (page 13) In “From the Doorway,” a mother again watches her son sleep: 

    The night is covered
    in books and papers and child

    and I like having him here,
    sleeping loose and uninhibited. 

    The room fills with sleep
    and the poor dummy heart

    already straining at my seams
    makes the tearing sound.

    Fear. Or laughter.

    the strangest
    of all catastrophes.     page 20

The poems in this first section were a perfect grouping. However, I wonder if the order of the poems within the section could have been arranged differently.

Section Two, Of All Faces, is one sequence comprised of twenty-four short segments that follows a heated relationship with all its eroticism, angst, anxieties, darkness, and pain. A very old story, surely, but one with fresh images in the mix, even for death. In the bedroom, “death’s hovering like the cap / hanging from the doorknob.” (page 60) Below, perhaps the often-expressed mixed feelings, here with a fresh metaphor:


    Sometimes he’s everything to me:
    yesterday, tomorrow, regret and shame.

    And sometimes he’s nothing to me,
    an old cushion on an old couch:

    a pin-cushion:
    something I think I can replace.

Odd, how mundane and worn the themes of love. Or should I say, timeless.Romance novels thrive. It’s all in the expression. 

    Poem xxii:

    I want to see his face.
    I’ll be at his door again,
    I’ll just stay five minutes,
    his face is a clue to me but I don’t know
    what it means. You’re sad I say when he isn’t sad,
    maybe he’s thinking about leaving me, or dying,
    skipping rocks across a grave
    or swinging his legs at its edge,
    but I don’t cry, that was a little while ago,
    eons and eons ago.                                          page 58

The final section, “The Modern Period,” is twelve poems of taking stock, recalling the past, analyzing the present, contemplating the future:

    Soliloquy, ii

    I could not be, even now, just particles of mist
    but I might wish to be—
    I couldn’t be mist because mist
    is airborne, mist doesn’t wear black
    and dirty up so many pages. 
    No mother is only mist.
    ……………………………When did it
    get so mysterious? This isn’t me speaking
    but the old gentle hiss of a slow glass
    ship in a bottle on the sea.                        page 66

The title poem in this section is one of my favorites. How often do poets write about the books they collect, especially since most poets collect and read books. (I assume.) This poem will speak to a parent/poet who is also a book collector:

    The Modern Period

    When Gutenberg figured out
    how to make letters that could be
    rearranged he changed us all.

    Once upon a time
    I laid my head on books
    and was surrounded by books

    and bought books and rescued books
    reminding me I had only
    finite years in the book of my son,

    whom I almost left for books,
    to whom I leave my books.         page 73 


Linda Aschbrenner is the editor/publisher of Marsh River Editions. She edited and published the poetry journal Free Verse from 1998 to 2009 which now continues as Verse Wisconsin. She lives in Marshfield and is presently lost in the 1950s as she works on a book of family memories with her two sisters, Elda Lepak and Mavis Flegle.