Human Hours

reviewed by Maya Phillips

As its title implies, Human Hours, Catherine Barnett’s follow-up to her James Laughlin Award–winning collection, The Game of Boxes (Graywolf Press, 2012), is a book-long meditation on time marked by vigorous inquiry. As she writes in “Accursed Questions, i,” “So much depends upon the kindness of questions. And the questions we cannot not speak of.” Barnett’s interrogations are unrelenting, occasionally riddles, like koans, posed in response to life’s challenges: a son growing older and leaving home, an aged father losing his mind. There are no answers here, only sobering truths: “If you’d laugh, I’d feel less alone.” But there is a constant search for answers, through an interrogation of the everyday, as well as an academic investigation, the poems strewn with references to a variety of texts and artworks ranging from John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde to poems by Sylvia Plath, Larry Levis, Frank O’Hara, Jean Valentine, and others. When Barnett settles into the concrete, without glibness or twists, as in “Prayer for the Lost Among Us,” in which the speaker recalls a father who takes “sleeping pills” and drinks “martinis” and passes out “like a dead man,” a father whose “hair is the color of ashes / not yet set free upon the waters,” the scenes are all the more affecting because we know what’s at stake. After all, in the end, we also know the truth: “Time is a monster,” and we’re just trying to survive.

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2018.