Proximity to the reader is tricky business in poetry. Get too close and you’re laughed out as a confessionalist; get too far and you’re a hare-brained postmodernist. But in Practice on Mountains, chosen by Dan Beachy-Quick for Ahsahta Press’s 2013 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, David Bartone tactfully negotiates between the two, cultivating an immediate intimacy between speaker and reader:
Beautiful friend, the motion to dethrone you is meant to raise you up you must know this you must believe me.
Beautiful friend, you are the reader.
The mercy seat I know is yours alone.
Here I hand it back.
And hand it back he does—and then takes it back again, as needed. It’s this give-and-take relationship that makes the book so immediately gripping (that and the pure pleasure of Bartone’s ever-syntactically twisting, elongated lyricism). A reader of Practice on Mountains learns quickly that, if you are willing to follow the author’s vulnerability, and let your guard down, you will be intellectually rewarded with the hypotactic unraveling of Bartone’s existential reflections, which can appear suddenly and unexpectedly:
I would like to say to you I am searching for a faith.
I am aware that useless if you have to ask exists, and therefore useless if you have to tell exists.
Perhaps this is coming out churlish and masked.
Perhaps this will change into something we can come to love.
This living without.
This living will.
The result is pretty stunning. Bartone’s seems to be collating an ultimate unity of intellect and emotion, the reader and author, histories and hopes, the loved and unloved, persona and personified, and so on. The centrifuge of the work may be a romantic relationship gone awry and the turmoil involved in thinking it through, but it’s the vortex of surrounding meditation that always ends up taking center stage.
Reading Practice on Mountains is sort of like watching a DVD of one of your favorite movies and watching it through with every directors’, writers’, actors’, producers’, filmographers’, grafters’, and whoever else’s commentary all running at the same time. All the special effects, dynamic storytelling, and drama are there if you want it, but you turn on that commentary because you want the dirt, and it’s that metacognitive voice and original text in tandem that ultimately create the final pleasurable delirium.
That he operates as storyteller and superimposed enlightened narrator at the same time allows him to propose an idea and then immediately excuse, criticize, or celebrate the result all in one breath. Bartone is simultaneously speaker, commentator, and spectator, which allows him a unique perspective from which to view—or lose himself to—surprising philosophical inquiries, which often fall far from the central plot. Again, this prevents sentimental confession becoming the end-all, be-all of the work:
I am scared to admit this: the river is partial, from any view, except from in it.
Yes it seems we are all looking for heaven on earth.
In heaven, it is my belief, you get to choose which tense of life verbs occur in.
But the belief never lasts and I do not consider myself faithful.
You can say this is baptismal.
If there is a dominating recurrent theme in Bartone’s book, it seems to be that there’s no better way to examine a subject than by total immersion. In light of that, loving, having loved, and hoping to love may all be the same in that they ultimately shape the present, which is (more or less) the most immersive scene possibly. The most tender moments of Bartone’s poetry can be attributed to his bringing his subjects before the present:
The fascination of the human mind is that certain action occurring off scene is made more vivid because of, and certain action occurring off scene is stress-inducing. For years people have called this abstract v concrete. For centuries people have called that Hellenic dramatic action v Shakespearean.
The fascination is this scene, not what happened on or off of it in between this and the last. Or this and the next.
It is in this fascination I most implicate you, reader. You are here with me. For or against will.
We are here.
My love occurs both on and off the stage, as it may.
Bartone offers as many views on-stage from the poet’s seat as can be offered off-stage from a reader’s perspective. Both are united by the present, by the page, by the “stage,” of the written word, as it were. With all the many histories, past hopes, future dreams, perspectives and wonders Bartone shares with the reader in an effort to bring them to a present they both can celebrate, one wonders whether this book is less a reflection on past romantic love and more a cleverly concealed love note to his readers.
Practice on Mountains is available from Ahsahta Press
Jake Syersak is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Arizona. His poems have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in Cutbank, Phoebe, and Ninth Letter. He is the author of the chapbook Notes to Wed No Toward from Plan B Press. He edits Sonora Review and Cloud Rodeo.