Keith Barnes, born November 12 1934 in Dagenham into a modest family, was swept away by terminal leukemia on September 10 1969, at the age of 34, while living in Paris.
He was six years of age when the Blitz hit the East End of London, where he was living with his family, before being evacuated twice. This experience, and the spirit, courage and resolution he witnessed among those who endured the bombings of civilian targets, marked him for life.
As a child, he painted watercolors with his grandfather. At the age of twelve, he obtained a scholarship to study at Royal Academy of Music. At fifteen, he was awarded First Prize in Composition. Some of his works were played by at the East London Music Festival.
He seemed destined to a career as a composer when, in 1959, he destroyed all of his musical compositions with the exception of a cello suite. One year later he wrote ‘Devaluation’, inspired by World War II but also by the two preceding wars. This first poem was published by the Times Literary Supplement.
Barnes published three collections : Born to Flying Glass (Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1967), The Thick Skin, finished in 1968, (The Koala Press, Berkeley, 1971), Ain’t Hung Yet (1969), consolidated in Œuvre poétique / Collected Poems (éditions d’écarts, Paris, 2003).
Barnes’s work includes poems about war and post-war, about love, society and about writing.
He wrote in a style that is simple, accessible and concrete. Sometimes close to childhood, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, sometimes familiar, sometimes tragic, humor is omnipresent. His voice, distinct, profound, reaches us today, full of emotion but also sarcasm and melancholy, the voice of a poet who disappeared too soon.
I looked at the penny in my hand
three years before my grandmother was due
You were the penny my great-grandad spent
tossing you proudly while you blinked
my grandfather clenched you in his clammy fist
sent scuttering for a bag of broken biscuits
father stuck you in one eye
feigning for friends Lord Fauntleroy
Now you blink no longer being blind
Time opened your eyes to blow in thorns and sand
Time lifted your lids to search and saw
complacency grown fecund
thrust in three wars – The Boer the Great the Second
Great-grandad tossed his grenade at a Boer
grandfather clenched curdling throats seared with gore
father stuck bayonets through fat and through thin
until they in turn smacked the dust in death’s grin –
while you passed from pocket to purse till and shelf
marking the years with your dumb vagrant self
while you stayed pretty for thoughts and round
wise plain honest and in for a pound
I looked at you lying there in my hand
should I accuse you? I asked
accuse you for making it all seem such a farce?
for passing through what you had not planned
for waiting against the wailing and the dying
against the tearing bleeding crying?
Can I accuse the water for reflecting
flying birds as I do you for passively accepting?
you are mnemonic of our guilt
I crouch and dig a hole and bury you
Keith Barnes, Oeuvre poétique Collected Poems Paris: éditions d’écarts, 2003
Jacqueline Starer, K.B. Paris: Maurice Nadeau, 1987
Barnes met Jacqueline Starer in Paris in 1963. It was a decisive meeting, for after this date, it was possible for him to devote himself entirely to writing, and they lived together until his death. Jacqueline Starer is the author of K.B. (éditions Maurice Nadeau, Paris, 1987) as well as his translator.
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