Ollie Ollie Oxen Free

Shades of grief in the verse of Catherine Barnett

The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott described play as the engine of creative growth in children. In its earliest forms, play takes place in the presence of the mother, who provides a “holding environment” for the child. Hide-and-seek is a model for their interaction: the mother must always be able to be found and yet removed enough so that the child can properly search for her. Without risk, there is no authentic play.

About Winnicott’s theory of play, Catherine Barnett remarks, “Writing, for me, is like that, although I am totally alone: I try to go far away or far down somewhere while knowing—hoping—I can touch back into something safe. I want to be able to go to places that aren’t safe and return.” Barnett’s “Ars Poetica,” with an epigraph from Winnicott, makes that connection between children’s games and writing. The poem recalls a phase of life when absence was just a pretext for play and the lost could be retrieved by calling, “Ollie ollie oxen free.” Everyone comes running back to home base in the shade of the eucalyptus. The tree’s name—the Greek root means “well covered”—makes it an appropriate figure for Winnicott’s sheltering parent.

Barnett’s poems approach mortal loss from surprising angles. In “Where but to think is to be full of sorrow,” the speaker recalls a failed attempt to steal a bracelet from Macy’s. It’s not clear yet where this poem is headed, but soon we learn that this memory has been prompted by thoughts of other thefts. She describes her father being “zipped … into a bag” and carried away in the dark. On the second anniversary of his death, the speaker—perhaps trying to bring her father back to her, or to face her inability ever to do so—slipped a pencil out of “its packaging” and sat down in the drugstore aisle to write, to try “to fix the thing” she’s “always working on. // What belongs to whom, who gets taken / from whom.”

Poets take whatever they need to write when the need to write is urgent. As T. S. Eliot noted, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” What the speaker in Barnett’s poem wrote down in that drugstore aisle seems to be the line from “Ode to a Nightingale” that is the title of her poem. It comes from that point in the ode where Keats, his brother having died of tuberculosis, longs to fade away into the forest with the musical bird and forget the world of human suffering. Barnett’s poems dwell in that world. In “Unoccupied Time,” the speaker and a friend of hers in cancer treatment have each “promised // to be there for and after the other’s / death, which defies logic.” In “Still Life,” she reacts to her student’s sudden death by brooding on the mystery of breathing, so ordinary and ubiquitous that the peaches on her table do it.

“I’ve been told,” Barnett writes, “I flail my arms / when I sleep, as if I were drowning.” Don’t we all? Haven’t we all been awake, as Barnett writes in “How to Prepare,” “between / 3:00 and 5:00 to stare into the abyss where flies gather”? She is not afraid to write about, and from, a place “far away or far down.” But she comes back from it safely. Her poetry records cries in the night as well as “the sound of the children / passing now by the open window.” Probably they are on their way somewhere to play.

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Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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