Review: Nightlight

David Barrick, 87 pgs, Palimpsest Press,, $19.95

Like peanut butter and jelly, dream poems may not be the most innovative recipe, but the taste of the two together is often much richer than their reputation. Anchored by an uncomplicated attitude toward imagination and a singular vision of craft, Nightlight deploys a deep understanding of modern poetry’s fundamentals to mind-blowing effect.

Many, if not all of Nightlight’s poems spring straight from Barrick’s dreamscape, with titles like “Recurrent Dream #79” implying just how much of that inner universe has been left unwritten. But the brief scenes Barrick did select for his collection are delightfully strange, achieving the classic surrealist balance of being both hauntingly precise and vertiginously ambiguous.

Typically, their touchpoints are the pleasures and commonplaces of twentieth-century (North) American life, as Barrick crafts carnivals and barbeques, trains and buses, hunting trips to the bush and sepia-tinted suburbs into a gamut of both vivid likenesses and nightmarish allegories.

Stylistically, Barrick’s technique is trained and tight, following a poetic tradition that leverages condensed metaphor to enflame sound and image. The resulting verse is meaty with assonance and alliteration and lightly seasoned with repetition and rhyme, as in “the chatter of coins on / the sidewalk, coins // and keys dropped / from sleep’s deep / pockets.” Amid a smattering of prose poems, most use fairly standard lineation, although the brilliant “Broken Watch Jazz” is exemplary of Barrick’s strength in moulding language to his subject:

this sudden siren
of sax,
a weird bird
flying past
a syncopating
Jenga tower
of tempos; (30).

While a handful might veer too hard toward sentimentality or cliché, especially in those tricky final stanzas, countless more poems showcase Barrick at his best. On the whole, Nightlight is a collection flooded with finely tuned lines to make the mind’s eye sing.