Brian Barker and the art of apocalyptic whimsy

Barker’s new collection comments on nature. Photo: Ayden Adair · The Sentry

Barker’s new collection comments on nature.
Photo: Ayden Adair · The Sentry
Disappearing into Vanishing Acts

Dr. Brian Barker, one of CU Denver’s English professors, has released a new book, Vanishing Acts, which invites readers to reimagine nature and humanity in a dark, surreal landscape. 

Barker wears many hats, creatively speaking. In addition to being an award-winning poet and a professor, he’s an editor for CU Denver’s literary journal Copper Nickel and a creator of collage art in his free time.

In person, Barker comes across as encouraging, genuine, and passionately curious about the world around him. As a poet, he always opts for the challenge of trying something new. While his previous collection, The Black Ocean, focused on historical moments and had a more traditional lineated form, with the prose poetry of Vanishing Acts, Barker confessed, “I needed a break from that. I was rebelling against my older poems in a way. I wanted to write a poem that was more concise, more compressed, that dealt a little bit more with the mythic, and a little less with specific historic subject matter.” He describes this book as full of a new kind of dark whimsicality. 

As for what fuels Vanishing Acts, environmentalism, mythology, zoology, mountaintop removal, and even Evel Knievel all find their way onto the page. Perhaps most clearly, Vanishing Acts puts fable and imagination front and center. A series of “re-creation myths,” which forms a large portion of the book, mythologizes from the viewpoint of a future when familiar animals have gone extinct and the speaker is left with only their imagination, where myth and fact mingle indiscriminately. 

“I’m fascinated by nature. It’s a natural thing to turn to the animal world and think about it, especially living in this moment in history where it’s imperiled,” Barker said. 

The book certainly does voice the anxieties of the current era, especially the ongoing conversation around environmentalism and climate change. 

“I’d read a book called The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, which really affected me and was hugely influential in thinking about how quickly species are disappearing, and the feeling, amongst politicians, of a lack of urgency,” Barker said. “I was thinking in terms of what are we doing now and what is that going to look like in 50 years.”

The book isn’t entirely darkness, though; satire and humor frequently complicate the collection’s tone. 

“There’s a way that I see the world as both beautiful and absurd at the same time, and I like to try to play around with that tension,” Barker said. “I often fear that we’re screwed, that we’ve gone too far and we can’t come back. But I think sometimes that kind of humor, laughing in the face of tragedy or difficult situations, is a way to see them from another angle… Good poetry and literature in general, it’s there to wake us up from the sleepwalk of our lives.”

Barker also shared some sage insight into how to approach poetry. “There’s this feeling or misconception that a poem is some sort of riddle, that you have to get the meaning and it has to be solved. And I don’t think that’s true,” Barker said.  “If we go to a museum and look at a painting, we don’t immediately feel like we have to know the meaning of it. We feel it before we understand it. And ultimately, we might leave it not completely understanding it, but we know it made us feel something. So, my sense of reading poetry is you should feel it first.”

Vanishing Acts is available now through Southern Illinois University Press and Amazon.

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