Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Spirit Balm Boogie

The following treatments have proved to be efficacious antidepressants in the past week:

Watching the stern chopper blades lift Bush away.

Hearing Obama on the radio. The possibility of a new channel.

Singing “Amazing Grace” a capella in the car.

Observing a squirrel nibble the lacy fringe of rootop ice.

Eating chocolate with over 70% cocoa content (limit: 1 bar per day).

Sitting on the orange chair in Jon's painting room, listening to The Clash while he works on Brian Wilson's hair.

Beginning to re-learn German (Die Welt von Gestern, Stefan Zweig, 1 page per day).

Ongoing plasticity trials: Challenging the Inner Prosecutor's hard-wired loops by strengthening counter-circuits, following established protocol:
1. Interrupt the I.P. mid-spiel (“breaking in” is vital; decorum leaves the loop intact).
2. State the Inner Advocate's counter-argument (belief in the client–or his attorney!–is not necessary; make the case as strongly as possible. Take the floor!).
3. Reward the I.A. (simple but key, without it consolidation falters: do something pleasurable right after or along with the new thinking, reinforcing the loop with a dopamine spritz. The I.P. is retained by the state. Do you expect his adversary to work for free?).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Lily Pond: reviews and interviews

Below are links to reviews to date of my memoir The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis, and to two author interviews.

The reviews are listed in the order they appeared. Naturally I have my own takes on all the pieces, but the author's opinions are not what you read reviews for, so I will simply list the particulars and their links.


1) "The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis," review by Mark Callanan, Quill & Quire (October 2008). http://www.quillandquire.com/reviews/review.cfm?review_id=6257

2) "When madness rules your life," by Robyn Sarah, The Globe and Mail (October 4, 2008). This article discusses memoirs on mental illness by Kay Redfield Jamison, Mark Vonnegut, and Mike Barnes. http://biblioasis.blogspot.com/2008/10/globe-review-of-mike-barness-lily-pond.html

3) "The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis," review by Rachel Bravmann, bp (Fall 2008). http://www.bphope.com/Item.aspx?id=446

4) "Achieving self-definition," review by Shane Neilson, MD, Canadian Medical Association Journal (January 6 2009). http://www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/full/180/1/83

5) "In the black box of bipolar disorder," review by Alex Good, Guelph Mercury (January 17 2009). http://news.therecord.com/Life/Books/article/473408

6) "Man challenges accepted wisdom. Man wins," review by R. Belkind, ShareCare AmiQuebec newsletter (Winter 2009, page 5). http://www.amiquebec.org/Documents/Newsletter2009Winter.pdf


1) The Danforth Review, interview by Nathaniel Moore. http://www.danforthreview.com/features/interviews/mike_barnes.htm

2) Biblioasis, interview by Dan Wells. http://biblioasis.blogspot.com/2008/09/lily-pond-introductory-interview-with.html

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Prayers, Portraits, Post-Its (3)

My Bosses

When quitting time came they frowned, muttered, sighed;
Glared, cursed my timing; one actually cried.
Young Word-to-the-Wise prophesied dark days.
All sang of my worth. None offered a raise.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Prayers, Portraits, Post-Its (2)


Another monster.
“Sick,” killing people.
Making cops chase him all over creation.
(Creation being some familiar rainy streets.)

Got scared, or tense
anyway. Queasy at times.
(He was very sick. Plus
there were tricks with focus, angles.)

Went for popcorn
when another sicko and a shrink
were sketching his psychological profile.
The lineup was huge.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Prayers, Portraits, Post-Its (1)

I have a black three-ring binder where I keep the poems I write occasionally. A white label on the spine carries the title in blue ballpoint: Prayers, Portraits, Post-Its. I intended the title as a place-holder till I found a better one, though to date nothing better has suggested itself. The present title came about simply because I'd noticed that the poems I wrote fell fairly neatly into one of these three categories.

“Prayers” is one of those words for which explanation is either unnecessary or impossible, but “Portraits” has its usual range of meanings. “Post-Its” are small, often dyspeptic observations and reminders (again, about what you'd expect).

The poems are arranged by category in the binder, but in no particular order within their categories. I won't identify a poem I enter here as a prayer, portrait, or post-it. In most cases I think it will be clear. And where it isn't, it never could be.


Where the roof of our house
was, an acre of mud
oozed down below the moon.
We dig now to find stars.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Outer Workroom

A woodcarver I once knew carved all day in the back room while his wife ran their outer shop. In the shop, or gallery as they called it, a selection of the carver's works were exhibited alongside works by other artisans on commission. Since he produced a vast quantity of carvings and only a small number could be displayed, I asked how he determined which ones were chosen. See that one? he said. I looked at the carving he indicated. That will probably go to the outer workroom. See that one? I looked where he was pointing now. That one won't.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Franken-Tzara, streetsnips

“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”

Thus Al Franken supporters at a rally during the long recount process for the disputed Minnesota senate seat, still uncertain two months after election day. Franken, forced of late to suppress his comedian's instincts but obviously not completely, explained that he was propagating a Dadaist meme. And by both gestures, the not-really-Dadaist (1) but beautifully witty chant and his egghead-puckish rationale, he made me glad that this Minnesota-born citizen-abroad had voted for him. I don't know if it is despair or puerility, or the confusing blend of the two that can result from toxic exposures to the microcephalic creep machine that is Business As Usual...but I want a senator who can think and say something like that.


(Bold Street)

Jerry sweeping at reddish chunks of ice beside his front step. His plaid slippers.
“What happened?”
He points up. The third floor window is black, no sky reflected. Not just ice.
“Fell. If he's smart.”
Thin, stoop-shouldered, his broom stabbing down, he looks like some kind of mutant stork stabbing at a frozen mudflat. Where's his dustpan? Piece of cardboard, even.
He's just poking at the stuff. Moving it around.


The homes get larger and, right on cue, the sidewalk ices over, uncleared. Then clears, well-salted, at the corner. Starbucks.

(Bayview near York Mills, Leslie near Lawrence, Avenue near Lawrence)

Every afternoon at rush hour, a traffic cop (sometimes two) at certain spots. Managing four packed lanes in two directions to permit left turns out of a busy lot. For the fiftieth time, I wonder how those salaries every day could be cheaper than a light. But it's a specialized situation, only bad when the traffic exiting–the upscale grocery store, the software company, the fancy car wash–interferes dangerously with the street traffic. And...they're high-priced neighbourhoods. In the poorer districts, when things jam up, the advice to shoppers is what it's always been: walk or wait. (Or make a right. A safe and easy alternative–but the more expensive the car, the more likely its driver will find this unacceptable. The round-the-block detour is a moving wait.)

(Oriole Park, “the Dog Park”)

Small man walking a little dog: both wearing the same grin.


1) Or? Dada evades categorizations as efficiently as a swamp, whose complex respirations comprise the methane belches of decomposition and the orderly inspiration of photosynthesis...plus a hundred other intricately connected and only apparently contradictory processes. Bodies of meaning drowned and dismembered, sunk out of sight, bloat and rise naturally again. Hugo Ball, in his diary Flight Out of Time, recalls his legendary (and final) “Magical Bishop” performance at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, June 23, 1916, wearing his cardboard costume (imagine a preliminary sketch for Oz's Tin Man, with flared breastplates) of cylinders of blue, white, scarlet, gold and high “witch doctor's hat”: “I was carried onto the stage in the dark and began slowly and solemnly: ‘gadji beri bimba/glandridi lauli lonni cadori/gadjama bim beri glassala/...’ ...[when I] noticed that my voice had no choice but to take on the ancient cadence of priestly lamentation, that style of liturgical singing that wails in all the Catholic churches of East and West....” Vanguards of many sorts lived in Zurich at the time: Joyce was there; so was V.I. Lenin, indeed living diagonally across the street from Cabaret Voltaire. In Berlin, Einstein had recently published the General Theory of Relativity. Over on the Western Front, Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler, dispatch runner, was confounding and amusing his Kameraden with a bundle of attributes so vehemently out-of-it they might have been conceived, in the spirit of Marcel Janco's “Mask,” as a Dadaist disarticulation of Personality: the 27-year-old who refuses on moral grounds to accompany his fellows to the brothels and upbraids them harshly when they return; “the artist,” his nickname, obsessively reading and sketching in the trenches; the to-the-death despiser of peace and peace-talkers who adopts a little white dog strayed over from enemy lines and lavishes on it a doting care. Shortly before his Magical Bishop performance, Hugo Ball called Dada “a farce of nothingness in which all the higher questions are involved...a gladiator's gesture, a play with shabby leftovers.”

Saturday, January 3, 2009

ur-blogger blurt

ever since deciding to commit a blog (curiosity trumping doubt with this argument: being the five millionth kid to ride a toy train doesn't mean it can't be fun), i've been haunted by a little poem. it's a poem i wrote nearly 30 years ago...one of more than 1500 poems i wrote between 1980 and 1983, this one close to the start of that train. it was published in Event and, later, in 1988, in my self-published collection Black And White Pictures After A Rainstorm. it visits me so often lately, often just before or after the word “blog,” that i have to wonder at the connection. the psychic landlord must ask any persistent ghost to state its business. specifically, i wonder: could this be an ur-blog, or ur-blogger, i'm dealing with?


just before he went to the hospital
he stayed in his room for an hour
and a half with the door closed.
then he went, peaceful and composed.
he died on the operating table.
when they opened up his room
to dispose of his effects
they found a terrific mess
left by this tidy man.
he had strewn hundreds of old letters
and envelopes around the room,
shredded papers, scrawled cryptic
enigmatic notes on the walls in crayon,
broken shells, statuettes, vases,
thrown clothes and linen all
around the room and smeared gobs
of artist's oils on the furniture.
he wanted to leave something behind
that would have to be cleaned up.
the idea itself wasn't bad.

speculative scatterings, the small change of spectral shakedown:

1. i wrote “Mess,” and its hundreds of poem-siblings, after being discharged from a psych ward after eighteen months and resuming—or rather, starting—life as an on-call dishwasher who wrote poems when he wasn't loading the Hobart or scrubbing pots. (or sometimes when he was: scribbling a few lines with a pencil stub in a flip-top spiral notebook, veiled by scarves of steam or else hidden in a washroom on a physically unneeded break.) “he died on the operating table.” i am starting a blog after writing a memoir of that hospital experience and the maze of allied passages i've wandered in since.

2. squalor. i've just spent two weeks of hard labour trying to restore my workroom—“his room”?—to a condition where work in it is at least imaginable. i'd let things slide. dust-draped drifts of papers, toppled piles of books and files and clothes and doodads, little rat trails to squeeze teeteringly through...i didn't like being in it long, much less working in it. a vandal had taken my original clean-lined sketch of a comfortable, orderly capsule and defaced it utterly, smearing confusion and neglect over it until its features were unrecognizable and repulsive. i must have been the vandal; i had no other suspects.

3. the Osiris impulse: to be strewn and reconfigured. perfidious brother Seth, lord of filth and chaos, may have lured you into a sarcophagus sealed with lead and loosed you to the Nile, but death is just the start of your story. Isis, good and loyal wife, will turn into a sparrowhawk, fanning enough life back into your corpse that you may beget a strong loyal son, Horus, an abler Hamlet who will continue to take your fight to Seth. and after your loved ones have properly mummified you, when the tireless mayhem of Seth has cut you into pieces and strewn you about Egypt, even then Isis will collect the remains and you will reassemble in your most exalted form, as Lord of the Duat, the underworld. Osiris the Comeback King, down-but-never-out presider over every smash-and-restart festival (i.e. every festival, New Year's being the archetype): Happy Osiris!

4. i produced “effects.” and from the humblest of means: Hilroy notebooks, scraps of paper, pencils, Bic pens, a Smith-Corona manual typewriter that was thiry years old then. the mounting numbers of poems were dispersed around the world. batches of 10, outflow always exceeding inflow. if 7 “browns” (taffy-coloured 9-by-12 envelopes, addressed to me in my own hand) arrived in the morning mail, 8 or more went out that night. remixes of the better—on second look—of the 70 returns, augmented with new ones from the days since. 70 poems back, 80, 90, 100 poems out. those kinds of numbers are what once casued me to estimate, to bemused eyes in a writing classroom, that—crossing 1500-plus poems with the fact that some favourites went out at least ten times before being retired—i might have accounted for 10,000 poems passing in front of the eyes of others. 10,000 poem-perusals, however brief. and they also help to explain how the 125-or-so poems i eventually published in magazines could strike me as a relatively minor—if happy—effect i was producing. (“a Rocky of Verse” i styled myself: a nickname with mauled grandeur in its belittlement.) more immediate and more regular was the scowl my mailman gave me when i caught him loading the browns onto the flimsy wire claws beneath my lobby mailbox or, in protest, letting some of them drop to the floor. Jimi, too, my softheaded super who played ball hockey with his cats, i caught handling the browns, turning them back and forth in befuddlement before casting a (for him) sharply suspicious glance at his attic tenant. these were effects. so were the mailings and returns themselves. matter translated in the world. type on paper in envelopes in a truck or plane: carbon on carbon in carbon by carbon. was it bertrand russell who defined work as moving matter on or near the surface of the earth, or directing such movement? well, i was moving, and directing to be moved, a lot of matter. working from A to Z in the International Directory of Periodicals, i imagined fingers of all kinds handling my pages and responding to them with sighs, chuckles, curses, groans, frowns, smiles and, yes, silent wonder. i expected abuse, hoped for adulation. i received solid examples of the first and mild promises of the second. solid: a letterhead from a little mag with the macho boast: “Honest craft we salute, asswipe we so identify.” my rejection was a blank page with “asswipe” circled raggedly. another tough-talking westerner—both of these Californian—scrawled “mostly this is SHIT.” mild promises: acceptance, without comment, of a poem, the other 9 returned (i developed an uncanny ability to tell a “light brown” by heft). or (almost better in a way, more intimate): rejection with handwritten encouragement, “these weren't bad...send more.” Poetry Australia accepted my poem synchronizing the life of Heinrich Himmler with the flowering of a hawthorn tree outside my window. a mag in England found “The Rabbit Screams” to be “hallucinatory, though needs shortening.” a mess was being made. people all over the world were dealing with it. i was happy, involved. effects.

5. but...and this is where the analogy breaks down, the interrogation terminating in a negative (“no less useful than a positive”: Grade 12 Chemistry)...blogging produces no physical mess. it is immaterial. walk into the workroom of a blogger with 1000 500-word posts—half a million words ricocheting in cyberspace—and you will see: a laptop.

...it is a mess in a closet. a closet where the addled housekeeper can pile whatever he likes, its dimensions being for all practical purposes infinite, knowing that each time he closes the door, a Borgesian magician will wave a wand and make all—closet and contents, housekeeper (and house!), the magician himself...disappear.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Letter to Thursday

Dear Mike,

Though we share a name and parts of a life, we have never met. Neither of us thinks this is strange. You, because you don't know–and can't believe–that I exist. Glimmers of my approach you either miss entirely or dismiss as mirages; news of me you discount as unfounded rumour, lies, or tall tales told to “buck you up.”

Whereas I have no doubt that you are real. I know what you have done in the past and are likely to do again. I watch in fear and resignation as you approach, in part because I know that when you get here I will be gone. You will be living the life we share, alone. And then no communication between us can occur.

That is why time is short, and why–though there is much I would like to say to you–I must keep this as practical and brief as possible.

Two days ago, after sensing your approach for several days, I saw definite signs that you were near. Thursday was a bad day. Repeatedly, I had trouble understanding what I was reading. The words were simple but the letters looked like black ants scattering. I would track a sentence carefully to its end without extracting any meaning, then follow it again with the same result. To test myself, I opened a well-known book, a book I'd read a dozen times. Non-sense. Or, at best, a kind of senseless sense, a forced march of symbols but with the meaning, the joy, scooped out of them. Like a file of ants that can be observed and followed, but with no true understanding of their purpose.

It was your world, of course. An advance warning of it. It is not a world that can ever really be described in words, since it exists mostly without words, beneath them. It is a place of slivers and shards, without cohesion except a unitary drabness and vileness. A no-place where reality itself is scissored into tiny bits and then scattered about. Even the simplest physical actions become difficult, you stumble and cut yourself often, since the body's parts are not coordinated and are poorly aligned with the things around them.

Sequences are smashed. You find yourself stirring something in a pan with no memory of having put the ingredients in the pan or any idea what to do with them next. You pause in corridors, a blank behind and before you.

(If I can describe your life to you, are you more likely to believe I exist? If this message in a bottle washes up on the shore you pace, and opening it you read a description of your days, could that amount to a faint recollection of a previous life? A faint hope of returning to it? If so, that would be everything.)

The news is bad, for me. You are coming soon. The other signs Thursday were unmistakable. Food had little taste; I chewed and swallowed it mechanically. Purpose leached from things; an hour became a sequence of impossible chores I had to gird myself for and then grind through clumsily. The past became a wasteland, a desert of failures and squandered hopes. The future became a constant anxiety, spiking at times into terror. For where could such a hapless loser (as I judged myself to be) end up except homeless on the streets; broken in an institution; or dead by his own hand?

Yet if the news for me is all bad, for you it is all good. For I am coming after you. I am coming back. We succeed each other. You are Thursday but I am Friday. Friday was yesterday.

Yesterday I drove to a man's house. We drank tea together and talked about his daughter, who is ill and whom he worries about. He felt he could talk to me, that my opinions would be valuable, because of a book I wrote and spoke about at his church. It is, in part, a book about you and me. And during the hour I spent with him, I tasted his tea, I felt the leather of his couch, I saw the sunlight slant across his pictures. I knew I was in the world and had a place and value in it.

There was more, yesterday. I drove to Hamilton, where I grew up, and spent the afternoon with an old friend whom I had not seen in a dozen years. We had tea with her elderly parents. When we left, her father, who is shrunken but still fierce, shook my hand for a long time, his grip still strong. We had more tea at a Tim Hortons–I hadn't drunk so much tea in years–and talked and laughed at length. She, too, worries about her children–especially her son–and as we talked, her cell phone rang: her parents, anxious since they had expected her home sooner. She bought two of my books, for herself and for her brother.

For much of the day–for most of it–I knew myself to be a part of the human web of worry and laughter. I knew myself to be a person of gifts. Artistic and intellectual gifts, yes, but before and beyond these, gifts of connectedness, of linking myself closely to others.

I returned home to Heather and the life we have built together here. And I knew, again, that I loved and was loved in return. And that I belonged. Not just here, or there, but anywhere I am.

I am who you will become. As you have many times before, as you will again. (You will not remember this or believe it. But if you read this you may doubt–for half a second–the nullity you perceive in all directions. And that half second of doubt is what I want to purchase. It is what I am banking on.)

Today is Saturday. That means this is not said as well as it could have been on Friday, though still far better than on Thursday when it could not have been said at all. Thursdays will gain over the next few weeks, and worsen still, though at the start there may still be the occasional Friday, or a part of Friday, to leaven them. I will enjoy these respites as I can.

I have little hope that you will read this, and only a faint hope that you will understand any of it. But a faint hope is not no hope. Now, while there is time, I mean to leave this in different places, in different forms, in the hope that you may find it. The same message but in different bottles, loosed in different currents.

I promise that I have not lied to you about any of this. I will not say that the waters that surround you are not black and treacherous. Or, even, that your constant fear that one day they will swallow you for good is not well-founded. Though I pray–for both our sakes, since I cannot live without you–that it may be otherwise.

All that I know for sure is that you have emerged from these waters before, many times. And that I believe and expect you will again. And that I will be waiting for you–here–when you do.

(We will not meet. When you remember writing this, you will be me again.)