Hayden's Ferry Review


BOOK REVIEW: Kaleidoscope by Tina Barr

Tina Barr begins her latest collection of poems, Kaleidoscope (from Iris Press), with a perfect sonnet, “In the Kaleidoscope’s Chamber,” which ushers the reader into her colorfully patterned world. But, rather than using the kaleidoscope as a mere toy or object of whimsy, Barr’s speaker sees it as a truth device:


            “The chamber fills with purple,

            blue bruises, the open jaw of a dead father,

            multiplies the tight eyes of liars, orange tubes

            of trumpet vine, pink-tipped brushes of mimosa,

            filaments sweet as what I concocted in bottles

            from a perfume kit as a kid.”


Barr’s speaker smartly ends these fourteen lines with the calming yet cinematic, “My ears arrange it as music; outside are birds, ushering us in.” This ushering from nature leads to “Blue Rose” and “Blue Fawn,” two poems that use the kaleidoscope metaphor to create shifts in color. Barr skillfully takes a color to concoct not only a new color, but also a fresh, unexpected twist in the poems. Barr’s speaker withholds the blue in “Blue Rose” by starting out with the green of lettuce to the sensory details of vinegar, thyme, and salmon, to a lovely synesthesia of “…tails of four anchovies,/split grey and white, arranged on a plate./They taste of a concentration of salt/breaking into the mouth. As if their bodies/are permeated by a sea…” Food leads to water, which also leads to song. “Blue Fawn” also plays with a remarkable synergy, starting the poem with “pink mountain lions” and withholding the “Blue Fawn” until a later line. No lack of sensory feeling exists in Barr’s work, evident in “My husband cuts his fingers on the piano’s teeth,” which becomes the grating line introducing the titular blue fawn.


Throughout the book, Barr’s speaker inevitably questions the usage of kaleidoscope, whether in meaning or in function. In doing so, “Masque” is a standout poem—Barr heightens the definitions of “masque” and “kaleidoscope” in several ways. Wordplay of “masque” vs. “mask” occurs—masque, as in theater, becomes emphasized through, “Nights,/children dab their tongues in gelato. Romeos/and Juliets glitter in the storefronts’ blaze over cobbles,” while mask, as in disguise or the relation to vision is focused on through “The waist that could draw men’s eyes has lost/its elastic” and “Inside my mask,/my husband recognizes my eyes.” This wordplay of “masque” vs. “mask” is crucial, since with the shift of words also comes a shift in the kaleidoscope metaphor.


Barr also uses the visual element of kaleidoscope to extend to ekphrastic pieces. Another standout poem of the book is the longer Henry Darger series that introduces section 2. In these poems, the definition of kaleidoscope shifts to that of a lens—the lens of Darger’s work upon discovering it after his death and the lens of the work (which the reader can only guess) during his lifetime. The inclusion of Darger is significant: the artist’s reclusive nature mixed with the vibrant yet tragic subjects of his works add to the synergy of Kaleidoscope.


Besides vibrancy, kaleidoscopes have the potential of the grotesque and kitsch. “Gold Moon Casino” in the third section plays with this kitsch, with a high culture analysis of the casino: “Gold drapes expose the fish tank of the parking lot” mixed with a low culture moment of sentimentality: “I laid my head in my Mama’s stomach: ‘I want you to die in my arms.’” Barr takes this high-low combination and effectively presents it in form, with a poem of twenty lines (10 in the first stanza and 10 in the second stanza).


While the opening sonnet of the book “ushered us in,” the opening poem in the final section introduces the kaleidoscopic movement of water. In “Launch,” the warm water serves as an impetus of the kaleidoscopic turn—a turn where we end up getting the masque, performance, and repetition of “Chinese Nuo dancers,” along with references to travel in Tibet. Movement in travel occurs multiple times in this final section, and “The Ecology of Atlas” serves as the culmination of this with interesting enjambments and indentations in form. The form takes a cascading effect, and in this final section, the full effects and metaphor of the kaleidoscope is realized. 

REVIEWER: Dorothy Chan was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Plume, Spillway, Day One, and The Great American Poetry Show. In 2012, The Writing Disorder nominated her poem, “Ikebukuro Train Rides” for a Pushcart. In Fall 2015, she will begin her creative writing: poetry PhD at Florida State University.