Erin Hoover’s Barnburner is sometimes set in small-town Pennsylvania, where one takes the work one can get—reading scripts in a call center, waiting tables, making coffee for the bosses, among other rote tasks that can be made to feel devoid of purpose and dignity. “We weren’t allowed to talk, only script-read, and I thought: Can’t they automate this?”
Having lived the better part of my life in rural Appalachian and rural Missouri communities, I recognize too well in Hoover’s poems the alienation and hopelessness, opioid abuse and its ripple effects, anger turned outward, then anger turned inward, like I recognize a mirror.
As I read these poems, I think about the poetics of anger. I think about righteous anger and indignant anger. I think about the absurdity or futility or hypocrisy of anger when you are living on land genocided from under the feet of others atop mines that turned the creeks in the watershed milk turbid or rust orange or clear as a frack-lit match. I think about how productive anger can be when it galvanizes us to action. And about those angers that just can’t be made productive or useful, despite one’s best efforts, so turn inward into a terrible, self-destructive pain.
There are occasions where nonviolent conflict resolution is an elegant and miraculously effective answer to fascism’s fury. And then there are occasions when a sucker punch from some girl you never would have guessed had it in her is its own exquisite response to one more agent of the hegemonic patriarchy and that late-stage capitalist horse it rode in on.
It is commonly the work of introductions like these to position a writer in relation to their literary forebears, and since Hoover’s book is largely set in blue collar small towns and written with a conversationally direct and highly narrative style, we should talk about Robert Frost and the pastoral world he contemplated from the far side of a crumbling stone wall. Though Frost doesn’t intend it this way, that kind of golden-leaved dirt road cast in the beatific glow of a setting sun has become a dangerous dream that now seasons a certain kind of overcooked nostalgia until that stew tastes like a bitter, entitled gnaw of gristle.
Frost knew this gristle as well as any of us, but wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors,” with the ironic restraint and charmingly mannered double entendre of someone who still has something to lose. But why should a woman like Erin Hoover restrain herself, these poems want to know? Restraint doesn’t stop sexual assault like the one in “If You Are Confused About Whether a Girl Can Consent.” It doesn’t make the self-satisfied, privileged classes, like those in “With Gratitude to Those Who Have Made This Book Possible,” any more aware of their entitlement or their forsaken responsibilities. Certainly it doesn’t stop a gang of bigots from terrorizing the Arab stockboy in “Recalibration.” It is the speaker’s courage, interrupting the assault to ask, “Do you really have to do this?” that stops them long enough to turn their danger on her instead.
So why not find out what anger can do? What guileless speech might accomplish in place of politeness and rhetoric? Why not find out what happens when you hold yourself responsible for covering for your boyfriend who tried to rape someone. The speaker does this in “What Is the Sisterhood to Me?” and discovers, “Don’t say you know yourself / unless you’ve stepped outside of it, / seen the shadow you cast / in your own bronze light.” And then find out what happens when you hold him responsible for his actions and accept that the woman who fought him off with a fire extinguisher is not and never was “some dumb bitch.” You might discover, as the speaker does, “I never would have guessed, / holding the fire extinguisher, / how nearly weightless it is / in my woman’s hands.”
What happens when a poet goes full throttle are these poems. They remind me of what Audre Lorde said in “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” about the power in women’s anger. “[A]nger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification.” Not all of the anger in this book is directed at racism, but intersectionality and privilege are recurring themes, and the anger directed at sexism is deeply rooted in Lorde’s theories of anger that leads to insight and the possibility of better and more creative understandings. Hoover has this kind of anger, and she also knows she has power. In her poems she puts both to good use in ways that borrow as much from Lorde’s poetics of urgent, engaged speech as they do from Frost’s portraits of humble folk life.
The epigraph to this book is a call to burn it all down. “According to an old story, there was once a Dutchman who was so bothered by the rats in his barn that he burned down the barn to get rid of them. Thus a ‘barn burner’ became one who destroyed all in order to get rid of a nuisance.” There is honesty in this epigraph, raw and brutal, like the narrative voices in Hoover’s poems. But there’s an irony at play here, an irony perhaps borrowing a bit from the ironies of Frost’s “Mending Wall”: Hoover’s poems don’t burn down the cruelties of a homogeneous, racist patriarchy. Instead, they make a muse of it. A muse that can be objectified, stripped bare, and put on a pedestal for all to scorn. She fridges that muse so that one speaker of a heroine after another is vaulted by the shock of such violence into a journey of personal discovery. There are mean-spirited, ruthless characters in these poems and, in a kind of reverse Bechdel test, Hoover wipes away their inner lives and never lets them talk to each other about anything except those they have hurt.
Barnburner is not your grandfather’s apple orchard. It is the book of your mother calling across the neighborhood in a loud, clear voice, with that wooden spoon tapping impatiently against her hand, “You better come on home now, your time’s up!”