Sheepshead Bay by Ed Barrett

Ed Barrett has been a close friend of mine for over a decade. We are colleagues at MIT and often meet for drinks, a martini straight up for him and a bloody mary for me, at the end of the week. While we first met as poets, poetry is not the basis of our friendship. When we talk about poetry and poets we usually go no deeper than gossip. It may be that we believe poetry is out there and will find us without our assistance. It also may be that literary talk, unless it is spontaneous, bores us. Our attitude has something to do with the pleasure we take in writing poems; a pleasure we want to keep undiluted by excessive scrutiny.

Sheepshead Bay is a remarkable book by a poet who has a direct line to his considerable lyric gift and imagination. The poems are often in prose, but do not expect the prose poem as currently practiced by American poets. Ed's poems are not self-contained and smug. They open out, unreeling to carry the reader along so that you always end somewhere far from but magically connected to where you began.

Childhood is Ed's subject—he grew up around Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and water is his element—not so much in autobiographical detail but in a Romantic, ideal way. For Ed the child is the father and source of untroubled joy and imaginative apprehension of the world that neither doubts nor congratulates itself. His reach is Wordsworthian and he shares Wordsworth's love for secret places where the heart of things can be spied. This is "an unprotected world," and because it is defenseless "we can't stop loving it." The effort is tidal: we empty ourselves to be filled up again.

This is poetry of amplitude whose arms are spread wide, where sadness and fun are not opposites but different sorts of intensification. Just like life, I want to say and will, life that Sheepshead Bay returns us to refreshed. We have bathed in soul water and are better for it, our nerves closer to our skin. We can set aside the fiction of understanding at least for a time and go out into "the air—so charged with connection."