Reviewed by Richard Swanson
What a natural match—poets writing about taverns and pubs. We serve, after all, as one of society’s recorders of behaviors and perceptions, and what better place to track them than down the street where the beer flows from the tap.
Ralph Murre, a fine Door County poet himself, knows this, and his Bar Code is the happy result.
More than two dozen writers, roughly half from Wisconsin, contributed to this anthology, the bulk of it poetry, with eight prose sketches added to the mix. Many of the works were previously published in familiar literary magazines (Clark Street Review, Main Street Rag, and Free Verse), and the author roster includes recognizable national and state names.
With so many works by Wisconsinites, one might expect the book's bars to be exclusively Badgery, but Murre likes geographic diversity. Walk through the anthology's front door, and you'll find yourself in watering holes in Upper Michigan, Chicago, Montana, and even Dortmund, Germany and the Isle of Rhodes. Most of the scene is working class, some of it rough enough that you'd experience culture shock “if there was any culture here,” as poet Kelly Green wryly notes. In this milieu underlying tension often surfaces between age and racial groups, urban and rural types, regulars and outsiders, and men and women. At the extreme is one bar, nameless, where a murder occurs and everyone goes on drinking anyway.
Meander through the book's pages, between the tables, and you'll find a wide variety of people: bar-tenders, strippers, musicians, and patrons with colorful names like Wheels, Fuel Oil Phil, Gumzie, Big Zal, Spider, and Oatmeal. Many of those occupying stools or booths are chasing dreams, some of them long lost, and finding clarity is hampered by booze’s inherent fuzz. In the book’s introduction Murre says he aimed to mix “the sweet spoonful with a dash of bitters,” and he has clearly succeeded.
The writers in this anthology have two things in common, a gift for moving narrative along, and deft power of observation. Catch this vivid snapshot opening to “Small Town Saturday Night,” by Ellaraine Lockie:
Watching breasts that account
Or let yourself get pulled in by this haiku distillation of an iconic type of tavern, by Jeffrey Winke:
Works like these typify this rich, off-beat collection. Adding to its wealth of printed matter are an abundance of line drawings and sketches from Murre and David Thompson, and lots of black and white photos, mainly from John Brzezinksi, but also t. kilgore splake, Emmett Johns, Amy Murre and Bobbie Krinski. The visuals in the book are first rate, varied, striking and provocative, a fine complement to Bar Code’s lively text.
Richard Swanson lives in Madison, Wisconsin where he reads, gardens, and writes. His previous volume was Men in the Nude in Socks (Fireweed, 2006). His forthcoming work will be available in early 2010.
First published Verse Wisconsin