Review of Erin Hoover’s Barnburner
Erin Hoover’s 2018 debut, Barnburner stands out as a powerhouse collection of poetry from Elixir Press. Hoover’s work explores class, race, gender, and the influence of place. Barnburner paints an image of a woman who navigates her world by shapeshifting from the girl she grew up as into the woman she must be. This collection holds notes of working toward something better and finding successes to be hollow in the face of injustice.
The backdrop for many poems is the speaker’s youth in Central Pennsylvania. Poems like “Nobody Wanted Such a River” and “Livestock” wield the hallmarks of Pennsylvania like weapons. Hoover delivers cutting and frank portraits of the landscape, describing the degradation of the river, the rowhouses of Harrisburg, and the manure at the annual Farm Show. All of these influence how Hoover describes womanhood and wealth, how the speakers of her poems move through the world with their past firmly anchored in that river.
One poem where Hoover uses this awareness is “Recalibration.” A narrative poem, it focuses on a white woman defending a young Arab boy in a bodega from a group of white “townies.” This poem thoughtfully carries privilege, and the following examination of it comes through as genuine, especially set against the collection. In the bodega, the speaker attracts the men’s attention,
his problem became mine,
the gameshow wheel of categorical abuses
sailing past its black and queer boys,
past its recent immigrants, the needle finally landing
on me, a woman, just one more
kind of other.
Hoover’s language here exposes an awareness of both the hierarchy of privilege and the equalizing force of violence. Following this, the speaker is chased by the men and narrowly evades an attack, but Hoover shifts the poem away from the speaker’s fear and back onto the boy’s, “I’ll leave myself there. / I’ll let you imagine how I got home that night, / though I’ll say I kept thinking about the boy.” This moment amplifies this poem from an examination of violence into one of guilt and equality.
This level of excruciating clarity is consistent throughout Barnburner. Hoover suspends her reader in the same place her speaker is caught as she examines all the sides of a troubled, poor upbringing and how that colors the experiences of a woman doing her best to keep herself afloat.
The collection moves from riverbanks to city streets, office cubicles, airports, and the townhouses of rich friends. All of these places leave their mark on the collection, but those placed in the corporate world are especially profound. “The Lovely Voice of Samantha West,” “Temp,” and “The Valkyrie” each explore how a supposedly meaningless job influences the people who do it. Hoover uses “The Lovely Voice of Samantha West” to show the ways that these jobs turn the people who do them into no more than robots as she pulls the reader into a call center where a live person can only repeat robotic phrases, “The call center made me an / expert in my voice’s currency, what I could / do with its pitches and pauses, my larynx.” Here, Hoover counters power with the powerlessness of losing your voice, but “Valkyrie” strikes a different tone. This poem, which finishes the collection, shows a woman who is nearly robbed at an ATM, but is saved by her “explanation,”
to him that today I turned off the lights
in the supply closet to cry. How pieces of me
remain in my office cube long after security
sets the night alarm, and that some part
of me is always there, two eyes under a desk–
The robber pities her, and she subsequently pities herself. The speaker contemplates the man’s humanity because she now sees him as “a teenager in dirty jeans” while he sees her struggle to stay afloat in a job that drains her. There is a reckoning with the loss of self that Hoover hinges these pieces on.
This is especially true of the poems where Hoover takes aim at wealthy white women. The speaker moves from trying to be like these women to rejecting them. In “With Gratitude to Those Who Have Made This Book Possible,” Hoover analyzes this push and pull, this simultaneous need for acceptance and the repulsion the speaker experiences.
I’ve brought a summer salad,
I diced carefully to impress people that I’d hoped
a decade ago to be like, girls whose fathers built
pipelines in Africa while they wrote papers
about French Colonialism in school.
This particular poem shifts the speaker’s evaluation of her own inadequacy not to be these girls onto the shame of having wanted to be them at all. In this way, the threads of poverty are woven in a new way as the speaker digs into a world she isn’t sure she wants.
Barnburner centers on these kinds of internal and social conflict without providing an answer. These poems exist somewhere in between, inhabiting the only livable space, it seems, between extremes. These poems speak to young, working women and the ideal they are both striving for and working against. If you enjoy poetry that engages with place and gender, such as that of Olivia Gatwood and Stacey Waite, then Barnburner is undoubtedly for you.