Ritual Lights by Joelle Barron

— Terry Abrahams

This poetry is the poetry of what lives underneath the surface. Intimate, detailed, intensely personal, but not without relatable aspects, Ritual Lights balances its discussion of all-too-common trauma and daily difficulty with humour and belief in all manner of love.

Cover features a person leaning over an arc of light spilling across a desert.
Goose Lane Editions  |  2018  |  88 pp

Barron’s poetry is deeply connected to their own life and experiences. The same can be said of most poets, but their work is almost frighteningly honest. Many of these poems feel like peering into an open window or door, walking past the porch or back patio, and entering Barron’s life without saying a word. Seen, but not heard, the reader wanders through these poems and witnesses without interfering, relates without offering advice, empathizes without giving comfort. Barron’s work surprised me in the ways it was so intimate without ever letting its guard down, so to speak.

Within the first few poems, Barron brings up the image of Persephone, introducing readers to what this book is about: the darker side of life, what with loss, grieving, self-loathing and sexual assault, before the promised and inevitable return to light, hope, new growth. It’s a carefully poignant use of the indomitable Greek heroine, but it’s not a presentation without some humour of the tongue-in-cheek variety. In the poem ‘So Many People Write Poems about Her,’ Barron writes:

The way I tell it, Hades
is the last man of many
Persephone fucks
before she realizes
she is a lesbian.

Condemning the violence of men and uplifting the image of women changing the course of nature, Barron wants to rewrite mythology, remove what causes and has caused harm and continued hurt to female figures in history. This theme carries throughout the rest of the text in Barron’s personal accounts of rebelling against those who caused them harm and lingering hurt.

But often, poetry doesn’t have to make a pointed effort. Its existence is effort enough. In an interview with All Lit Up, Barron says they didn’t have a clear vision for this collection—“I just felt like I needed healing, and writing is always where I’ve gone to heal myself,” they said, and then, in wonderful summation, stated their work within Ritual Lights is “…a story of many losses that lead to the ultimate triumph of queer love and the formation of a beautiful family.”

Barron’s voice is particularly strong in the sequential poem ‘Five Spells.’ In these five prose-poems, spells are quite literally made. As a spell needs language, Barron attends to their intents and desired aims in writing; most striking is the third, ‘Incant Consent over Your Daughter’s Body,’ which reads:

Ask before every touch. May I kiss you? May I wash
 Make no holy. Untangle the forced compliance
of your own childhood, where you learned your place
as a sacrifice. Make tea with stinging nettle,
raspberry leaf. Your ancestry is thick with witches,
stirring turmeric into milk. May I kiss you? May I hold you
like this?
 Hand her no like a blade.

Barron’s language in this poem (and all the rest) never wavers. Their writing voice is strong, clear, and, overall, impossible to ignore. I will be thinking of this collection, I’m sure, for a long time to come.

Goose Lane Editions