Night Moves by Stephanie Barber
Publishing Genius Press, 2013; 86 pp
Reviewed by Matthew Guenette
Though Stephanie Barber’s new collection, Night Moves, happens in the pages of a book, the poem itself—one polyphonic act of appropriation, at times dull, at times jarringly alive—is more accurately understood as taking place in the comments stream of a YouTube video for Bob Seger’s iconic “Night Moves,” a song that, though written in 1976 by a musician fiercely identified with his Michigan roots, seems to have taken hold in a good three or four generations worth of nostalgia for red-blooded teenage lust. Multi-layered and conceptual, Night Moves consists primarily of sincere, sometimes maudlin, memories for old flames and a trolling commentary concerned with, among other things, taste (in music specifically, in culture generally, one that is decidedly American male and white). As such, this book invites trouble.
Because Night Moves is an amalgamation of voices, of other people’s lives, and because Stephanie Barber has exhibited these lives from a distance—her presence is more like that of a curator—we are left to wonder at her motivations: in what ways are these speakers valued? Is Night Moves a curiosity? Should we despair of such mundane devotion to a single song? Is Night Moves partly a joke about the sentimental? About a certain Midwestern niceness, or a certain working-class whiteness? What do these comments signal beyond the mood of their speakers? What is lost in the presentation; all the comments for example are centered, not unlike a Hallmark card. What is gained?
Aesthetically, Night Moves engages persistent questions about conceptual poetics. The book is process-oriented, not unlike the work of Kenneth Goldsmith. (And also, like Goldsmith, Barber comes to poetry as a visual artist.) And one could, vis-à-vis Marjorie Perloff, claim that Night Moves qualifies as unoriginal. But, unlike, say, Josef Kaplan’s recent splash Kill List, a conceptual work so hoax-ish and hermetically sealed that hardly anyone but poets in the in-group would care, there is something expressive in Night Moves that elevates it beyond mere data. Stephanie Barber has arranged a poem that embraces the idea of a readership. This embrace is clear in the associative leaps Barber makes between certain entries, leaps that spring the comments into shadowy moments of comic charm and the sublime, as in this exchange:
this is the ultimate mood song. if you cant get a girl to this
song you cant get a girl at all
Any body know what happened to nancy johnson who
grew up by mounds park, graduated from harding in 1970?
At such moments Night Moves is quite good. And while you can certainly hear Bob Seger singing in the background, the poem becomes, alluringly, less about that song and more about half-stories waiting to be dug up.