The Mean Game by John Wall Barger: Reviewed by Cameron MacKenzie

“Release them,” begins “Urgent Message from the Captain of the Unicorn Hunters,” the opening poem of John Wall Barger’s collection The Mean Game.  

Release them. Those sealed in your attics.
Those chained in your barns. Those on the nightmare yokes.
Those heads on your walls. This is our fault.

The first lines drop us immediately into a realm of whimsy and atrocity, a realm in which much of Barger’s collection finds its footing. The Captain continues:

Keep off, ye farmers of dreams & horns. We have done enough. Baiting them with our virgins.
Cutting the heads off the calves & their mothers.
Planting birthday candles in their eyes.
Fortune-telling with their gizzards.
Tossing their balls to the dogs.—Enough! 

It isn’t clear what will happen once the unicorns are free. The Captain himself confesses that he may have overstepped himself—has, perhaps “taken us too far.” But this is not the time for dithering. “First,” he says, “let them go. And then wait.”

As to what those loosed unicorns might do, we have Barger’s exhilarating, incantatory, and deliciously dangerous collection as evidence. Barger achieves these effects principally through the richness of a tone that harkens back to Beowulf via Borges. The antiquated language powers majestic and troubling visions that populate—and nearly overtake—the actual poems themselves. In “The Stiltwalkers,” for instance, conquistador-esque riders enslave a simple people:

We designed their poverty from scratch.
Poured wine on each other’s beards,
laughing, dubbing ourselves kings.
Introduced a law: the feet of each local
would be severed & upon each stump
a tall wooden stilt be sewn,
so they could not escape to the woods. 

But the mutilated populace eventually rises up to annihilate the riders until only the speaker survives. By the end of the poem he slouches around the capital city in the disguise of a washerwoman, forced to wear stilts of his own in order to move unrecognized among the people. From his hiding places he now looks upon his former subjects with awe:

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They have become eloquent
in walking. Running faster than we ever could.
Tall as birches. Their young born

Many of these poems could be read as perverse allegories, a poetic compendium of Grimm’s nightmares. In that sense Barger seems to be exposing not only our bloody past or our dystopian fears about the future, but the horrors of a present we are too inured to see. The book at times works to conjure an old magic to shock us back into ourselves, but who can say what that old magic may also awaken? Indeed Barger’s poems wrestle to break free of any sort of simple moralizing, desiring as they do something more pure, more ecstatic, more archaic.

In “Ash Baptism,” a young boy explains how his civilization was swept away by an unrelenting and mysterious storm that is quieted only when he offers up his final possession, a Twinkie, to the wind. Suddenly, out of the maelstrom come a pack of flying monkeys.

….The largest,
The Grand Seigneur,
wore a sleazy grin.
Eyes gray, mouth gray.
“Let every living soul
prosper,” he grunted.
“The Twinkie in your claw,”
I said, “is that the soul?”
He placed his bloodflecked crown
on my head. “All hail
the boy-king,” he muttered,
grinning, in the ash. 

When working with such almost Nietzschean tropes it could be easy for the language to get wooly or out of control, but the length of Barger’s line consistently works to balance his themes. The short and clear and precise lines fly by with ease, creating an effect of sustained intoxication throughout the collection, a piling on of madness, innocence, corruption, and mystery, the book in total a rocket-ship ride through heroes and monsters given persistent life by quiet, subtle stylistic choices.

One of the last poems in the book, “Inconceivable Mansion,” offers a vision that may be adapted for the collection as a whole. There, a living house made out of books, “wordless, preverbal...predatory,” gives birth to a young girl, the First Woman. “Her first thought, Kill my sister.”

Appalled by this (or overjoyed), the house spasms, dropping the girl to its basement where:

She steps into a McDonald’s.
Presented with such bright
disorienting symbols, she points.
It has been a shitty day.
She slumps over her burger
at a booth beside the ball room
shipwreck. Objects are freed
of utility, unmoored. Kids stare,
eyes eaten by fish.

Amid the colorful balls a girl—
half vanished like a saint
ascending heaven
—strokes her sister’s brow. 

For the poem, this circular story of malevolence and regeneration seems to be but one in the infinite house of wordless books, but it is without question the principal story of Barger’s work—the One Story, perhaps; a violent tale woven repeatedly in darkness for the sole purpose of providing a light in the otherwise “nothingness” through which “the mansion swims.”

So the same for this book. The great achievement of The Mean Game is to bring an ancient world forth into the modern one, mapping its madness all too easily over our own. And if the poems of Barger’s collection desire the heroic or yearn toward the sacred and the immortal in order to show us what we have been and could be, it would seem to be that very same desire which drives them back into annihilation, the abyss, the bloody end of the sagas. It is a tale of Icarus, perhaps, with nothing to be learned in the end other than the truth of who we are.

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Cameron MacKenzie's work has appeared in Able Muse, The Rumpus, SubStance and The Michigan Quarterly Review, among other journals. His essays have been collected in The Waste Land at 90: A Retrospectiveand Edward P. Jones: New Essays. His novel The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career, a novel about the early life of Pancho Villa, is now available. He teaches English at Ferrum College.