The Roaring Boys - John Barnie

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  • Winner of Welsh Arts Council Prize for Literature
  • The finalist for Wales Book of the Year 2008
  • Lives and works in Aberystwyth, former editor of The Planet

There is a sense of unburdening in John Barnie’s latest collection – a confessional mode that is certainly present in previous volumes, but which here achieves a new plangency. It is all the more striking for butting up against the poet’s characteristic tonalities – an unsentimental lyricism, sharp with dissecting irony. That unburdening is carried by form: each poem is a single sentence in which concept, argument and emotion are controlled by the sluice gates of semi-colons. Dramas unfold across clauses that bridge voices, tones and timescales.

What commands the speaker’s attention here is the action of the bones under a cat’s pelt, the dance of viruses in the marrow. Barnie’s is a kind of neo-Darwinian graveyard poetry, leavened by the wry humour (never easy cynicism) of one who recognises how the scale of the universe renders us all ‘lower case’ (as he puts it in ‘Here, and There’) – deities and major poets included. … But it is that confessional element that makes this collection different and compelling – or rather, the dynamic between biological observation and the elegiac imagination, to which Barnie gives freer rein. … one detects in The Roaring Boys a willingness to look with a greater degree of empathy on decaying lives both heady (see ‘The Roaring Boys’) and hushed. Present still, of course, is a refusal to be taken in by dogmatic systems and orthodoxies (‘so the vicar said’ from ‘The Slaughterhouse’ could stand as the motto of Barnie as poet); and yet in this book we find the poet still in meaningful dialogue with dead Canon Davies of St Mary’s, Abergavenny, on the subject of free will, bacteria, language, and the need to accord value to human life.

The Roaring Boys confirms and, importantly, extends John Barnie’s distinguished reputation.

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