Arsenic Lobster poetry journal Issue Forty
Spring 2016
Moonbook and Sunbook
Willis Barnstone

Tupelo Press, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-936797-42-4

        Had Saint Jerome, patron of translators, read Willis Barnstone’s Moonbook and Sunbook, he might have found a different phrasing for Ecclesiastes 1:9 than nihil sub sole novum or, as the King James Version renders it, and there is nothing new under the sun. In this collection of sonnets at once leisurely conversational and formally impeccable, Barnstone proves the Preacher (the biblical book’s purported author) wrong by using the broad concepts of “moon” and “sun” to touch on everything from the universality of the written word in “In M‡laga a Poet of Moon and Sun” to the realization that even though “life sucks… love / is everywhere, so why complain?”

        Following Barnstone’s playful and erudite hand as it zooms through the pages, readers of Moonbook and Sunbook visit the antediluvian plains of Ur in the first sonnet of the volume, where they see literacy being discovered fourteen lines later, only to be introduced to Joe Hill’s songs right after hearing Adam and Eve’s. This poetic grand tour takes us by turns to Federico García Lorca’s Granada in the 1920s, where we learn of his sacrificial death to keep the moon, his “child, lover and death”, shining. A few poems later we’re in a contemporary bar, eavesdropping on the speaker, alongside the moon, as he waits for his “moon lady” to show.

        Much like the sun and moon which give this book its name, Barnstone’s poems and his lyric speakers do not discriminate, training their light on everything and reflecting everything. His “I” is equally comfortable as the voice of “a lousy cook” who “burns water, or forgets the eggs / till they explode and hit the ceiling like buckshot” than it is (in French) reflecting on “les poètes qu’on aime / dans la lune, je les entends sous l’arche”. The handful of French poems included here are followed directly by their English versions.

        A habit of lunar love and multilingual reflection poses an interesting question that gets at one of the many cruces of translation: if the writer creates two (or more) versions of a poem in more than one language, can any particular version be said to be the “original”? A case in point is this poem. “Poètes dans la lune / Poets in the moon”. An endnote tells us that the poem was originally written in French and translated into English—alongside other poems originally written in French—in Café de l’Aube à Paris / Dawn Café in Paris (Sheep Meadow Press, 2011). This line would be literally translated as the poets one loves / in the moon, I hear below the arch yet Barnstone’s English reflection shows us a more personal, more urgent phrase, “Yet those poets whom I feed/ on in the moon, I hear below the arch.” That love is reflected in the act of feeding comes as no great surprise to this reviewer.

        The quiet yet enthusiastic lyricism of Moonbook ends on “Sunday Morning in Fascist Spain, 1951” with an exclamation about “Andalusia! Most of her grand poets die / flee, yet Lorca’s moons glare in a child’s eye.”

        As Sunbook begins, the Old World is bridged into the New; the voice of poets from Andalusia, both Moorish and modern, gives way to the voice of American poets from New York. The first poem from the section, “Dancing Greek with Kerouac until Dawn’s Sun” opens “His first version of On the Road Jack wrote / in French, Sur le Chemin, taking his queue / from Dante’s ‘Midway on the road.’” The central cares of Moonbook are mirrored here. Whereas most of the poems in the first section feature the speaker reflecting on events, or taking on personae, the poems in this section feature him interacting more with other (living) characters: his friends, his father, and the ever- present “you”, which is not to say that historical figures are left in the “dark night”. Jesus, Buddha, “Rob” Oppenheimer, and Baruch Spinoza, among others, are considerate enough to make an appearance in the light of the sun. To be a guest at this 24-hour party, catered by Guillaume Apollinaire, who “carts a ton of smoking crêpes straight up” to our lips while “WB” himself “fills our glass with words,” is a delight of worldly light.

Review by Jordi Alonso
Jordi graduated with an AB in English from Kenyon College in 2014 and is the Turner Fellow in Poetry at Stony Brook Southampton. He will be the Gus T. Ridgel Fellow in English at the University of Missouri in the fall, where he’ll be a PhD candidate. He’s been published or has work forthcoming in Noble/Gas Qtrly, Roanoke Review, Fulcrum, and other journals. Honeyvoiced, his first book, was published by XOXOX Press in 2014 and his chapbook, The Lovers’ Phrasebook, is forthcoming from Red Flag Poetry Service. He is the Poetry and Translation Editor of The Whale.