Human Hours

Catherine Barnett’s tragicomic third collection, 'Human Hours', shuttles between a Whitmanian embrace of others and a kind of rapacious solitude. Barnett speaks from the middle of hope and confusion, carrying philosophy into the everyday. Watching a son become a young man, a father become a restless beloved shell, and a country betray its democratic ideals, the speakers try to make sense of such departures. Four lyric essays investigate the essential urge and appeal of questions that are “accursed,” that are limited―and unanswered―by answers. What are we to do with the endangered human hours that remain to us? Across the leaps and swerves of this collection, the fevered mind tries to slow―or at least measure―time with quiet bravura: by counting a lover’s breaths; by remembering a father’s space-age watch; by envisioning the apocalyptic future while bedding down on a hard, cold floor, head resting on a dictionary. Human Hours pulses with the absurd, with humor that accompanies the precariousness of the human condition.

The Amenities

Enchantée, says the key in my hand.
When I try to turn it, it turns to sand.

Time is an upgrade, says the front desk.
Reserved for our most valued guests.

Time is an anemone, says the new hire.
Enemy. Amenity. Profanity. Dire.

Whatever you’ve forgotten,
they provide. Loved one,

plot line, pack of minutes?
Glass eyes, false teeth, all sleep is gratis.

How sweet
we look in our hotel linens.

Epistemology

Mostly I’d like to feel a little less, know a little more.
Knots are on the top of my list of what I want to know.
Who was it who taught me to burn the end of the cord 
to keep it from fraying?
Not the man who called my life a debacle, 
a word whose sound I love.
In a debacle things are unleashed.
Roots of words are like knots I think when I read the dictionary.
I read other books, sure. Recently I learned how trees communicate, 
the way they send sugar through their roots to the trees that are ailing. 
They don’t use words, but they can be said to love. 
They might lean in one direction to leave a little extra light for another tree.
And I admire the way they grow right through fences, nothing
stops them, it’s called inosculation: to unite by openings, to connect 
or join so as to become or make continuous, from osculare
to provide with a mouth, from osculum, little mouth.
Sometimes when I’m alone I go outside with my big little mouth
and speak to the trees as if I were a birch among birches.

O Esperanza!

Turns out my inner clown is full of hope.
She wants a gavel.
She wants to stencil her name on a wooden gavel:
Esperanza's Gavel.
Clowns are clichés and they aren't afraid of clichés.
Mine just sleeps when she's tired.
But she can't shake the hopes.
She's got a bad case of it, something congenital perhaps.
Maybe it was sexually transmitted,
something to do with oxytocin or contractions or nipple stimulation,
maybe that's it, a little goes a long way.
Hope is also the name of a bakery in Queens.
And there's a lake in Ohio called Hope Lake where you can get nachos.
I'm so stuffed with it the comedians in the Cellar never call on me,
even when I'm sitting right there in the front row with a dumb look of hope on my face.
Look at these books: hope.
Look at this face: hope.
When I was young I studied with Richard Rorty, that was lucky,
I stared out the window and couldn't understand a word he said,
he drew a long flat line after the C he gave me,
the class was called metaphysics and epistemology,
that's eleven syllables, that's
hope hope hope hope hope hope hope hope hope hope hope.
Just before he died, Rorty said his sense of the holy was bound up with the hope
that some day our remote descendants will live in a global civilization
in which love is pretty much the only law.