The Magical Words of Jo VonBargen
July 19, 2012
Writers in my mind are broken down into several groups. Some write words. Some tell stories. Some create images. Jo VonBargen does them all. She writes words that are magic, and her images work their way into your psyche like a desert thorn. With only a few words, a haunting story is told.
As the brilliant poet Oscar Sparrow writes: “Some poets belong to movements. Other poets have academic cred, medals, prizes and professorships. Dead poets have mourners and speak soil enhanced wisdom from the untouchable grave. As yet Jo VonBargen holds none of these positions but she has something very few serious poets achieve. She has fans, most of whom have made the same journey as me – across the long parched desert of minimalism … Her work is rich, incisive, accessible, intellectual and intuitive. I don’t know how she works but you get the feeling that she just does it out of her own spirit as it comes on the day – raw, refined, classically referenced improvised jazz.
I read her book, It Ain’t Shakespeare But Oh How It Glows, and was immediately touched by the power of the thoughts and the passion of the images she puts on a page. In a review, I wrote: “I read poetry. I don’t read poetry because it sometimes happens to have a certain rhythm and often rhymes. I read the poets who tell me a story. I love a good story, especially when it is told with vivid and unforgettable imagery.
“I have always read James Dickey because I knew James when he was a poet and long before he wrote “Deliverance.” I read Billy Edd Wheeler because we rambled through the mountains of West Virginia together. And I read Carl Sandburg because his words still take me down roads I didn’t know existed.
“And now I read Jo VonBargen. I’m glad I found her. She is as good as any poet who ever sat down with pen in hand and spilled her thoughts on a printed page. Her words are haunting and powerful. Some say they are magical, and I can’t disagree. Take a look at the opening lines of her poem “Sixteen” in her fascinating book, It Ain’t Shakespeare But Oh How it Glows:
I was a child
you were a handsome
uniform, a freaking vice
grip on my heart
you sucked out my whole
past and future
with a bloody kiss.
“Novelists should write that way, but most novelists don’t have the soul or the mastery of words that Jo VonBargen possesses. She doesn’t need characters. She doesn’t need a plot. And yet the stories she tells become part of anyone who reads them. In novels, you see and hear what’s happening, and that’s good. In Jo VonBargen’s poetry, you not only see and hear what’s happening, you feel what is happening. And that is even better. Her poetry has a freaking vice grip on my heart. But her words don’t suck out my whole past and future. They breathe life into it.”
My partner, Stephen Woodfin, read From This Far Time, and he wrote: “It is difficult for me as a journeyman writer of prose fiction to do justice in a review to the exquisite collection of poetry found in Jo VonBargen’s From This Far Time.
“From This Far Time chronicles the human saga from time immemorial to the present and hints at things yet to come. VonBargen’s poetry is reminiscent of the writings of the famous French Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin when it speaks of the processes that have brought the human race to this point in its history.
“But, her book is far more than a poetic treatment of evolutionary theory. It is an expose of the human soul, that ephemeral critter capable of such love and cruelty. It is a book about the yearning of the heart for justice and fairness and its ages-long acceptance of so little less.
“Take this section from “The Legend,” a chapter about the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico. “This is the story./ The sin of a nation is a/ Moaning of wind/ In bloodrock canyon-/In the neck of a bottle-/ In the heart of a placeless/ Soul. But Earth beats a pulse yet/strong/ And unstuttered,/ The unavenged rage of/ Wetted-down wings snuffed/ To the ether for no / Good reason save covetous/ want. Covetous want!/ I saw blood on the hands/ Of our Fathers and/ Fathers./ They, who passed down/ The Fool’s-Golden rule!/ Something was lost in/ omission, / Translation./ Yet, something was found.”
“This poetry grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. It sweeps nothing under the rug, pulls the skeletons out of the closet, parades them in the polite parlor. It does not shy away from atrocities. “A counterfeit savior, glib of /tongue-/What witness would tell it?/ Baked in ovens,/ Six million!/… Where was an obdurate,/slow/Jehovah/ when those bone-thin/ Corpses piled up/Into one great global/ Putrefaction?”
VonBargen’s writing is full of religious symbolism, but not a white blue-eyed Jesus. For her, the power of such symbols lies in their misuse on the one hand and their other-worldly essence on the other. She does not trivialize Golgotha.
“But I would do Jo VonBargen a great disservice if I left the impression that From This Far Time is a bowl of despair served cold. Rather, the words she has strung together vibrate with a power to transform the reader, to urge her to reach deep within herself and find the best parts of her spirit.
“From This Far Time is a remarkable read, a tower rising out of the plains to guide soul-weary travelers home.”