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Nature in Verse: A Review of "Treasures"


I’ve always been more of a prose guy than a poetry guy. I don’t write or read poetry very often. But with a copy of Donny Barilla’s Treasures in hand, I feel compelled to do more of both.

I ended up with Treasures in a somewhat roundabout way. I made a number of friends on a writing site several years ago, and while I eventually left that site behind, I stayed in touch with many of those people. Later, a Facebook group came together consisting of some of them, and they brought their own writing-oriented friends along. Among them was Mr. Barilla. I watched his efforts from some distance–we rarely spoke directly. But I admired his obvious determination, and saw his regular updates on the progress of this book.

As it was being published, he approached me and asked if I’d be willing to accept a review copy and post my thoughts. I always enjoy a challenge–I’ve never reviewed a poetry book before, much less one full of nature poetry, so why not? I figured I’d keep an open mind and give it a shot. I’m quite glad I did.

Treasures is not a thick or dense book. It’s a few dozen poems in a thin, unassuming volume. The cover art is unremarkable and the overall design is spartan. The poetry is the star here.

Unlike the nature poets I’m most familiar with–Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Robert Service, and the like–Barilla doesn’t much go for clear narratives. These poems instead offer verbal landscapes, impressions of times and places. They don’t tell stories so much as transport you, envelop you in these crisp images of natural beauty. Barilla’s surroundings are pristine, often untouched by human hands. The artifacts of humanity rarely appear here, and the people referenced most directly are nondescript groups of young children. Humans are mere visitors to this world–even aliens. The nature on display here is almost otherworldly, an orchestra of water and light and vegetation that played long before we came onto the scene, and likely won’t miss us when we’re gone.

Treasures is replete with feminine descriptions of nature. If the author has a true love, it must be nature itself. Forests and mountains and rivers are described with loving, even passionate detail, textured with inventive metaphors and great care. Seasons shift from poem to poem in a dreamlike fashion, giving a sense of the passage of time even though there’s no narrative throughline here. There are occasional forays into what almost becomes storytelling–the author hints at romantic liaisons with flesh and blood, or is it merely the total personification of the nature he so clearly adores? The descriptions range from awed and reverent to the sensual, even sexual.

The author inhabits this world, recording every detail in colorful, vivid verse. Every fallen branch, every blade of grass, every raindrop, every singing bird is a beautiful omen of nature’s bounty and wonder. It’s difficult not to appreciate the loving care paid to the natural world, here. It’s a perspective on nature so sincere and vulnerable, it’s genuinely surprising.

That brings me to the more critical aspects of this review, which I would be remiss to omit. The book’s size is underwhelming–I wish there was more here. A few dozen poems are barely a peek into the realm the author inhabits. There’s also an overreliance on certain metaphors, and at times I wish more varied approaches would be taken than personifying nature as a beautiful, voluptuous, fertile woman. There is, of course, a long tradition of such poetry, and Treasures is crafted to fit that niche, but that leaves me to ask what kind of audience this form has in 2016.

And maybe it doesn’t matter. As the author blurb in the book indicates, Mr. Barilla lives a reclusive lifestyle in the Pennsylvania wilderness. He wants to share his vision of nature, of the beauty that surrounds him. We’re welcome to accept it… or not. I doubt it matters to him one way or the other. He’s going to do his thing regardless.

Overall, though, my quibbles are minor. The fact that I want to see more work like this speaks for itself. Mr. Barilla has a fine voice and a compelling style. Individually, the poems within Treasures are alternately pleasant, thoughtful, and sometimes a bit unsettling. I feel like they don’t add up to a meaningful whole, however–the poems could be shuffled around into almost any order and it probably wouldn’t make a difference. I didn’t sense any transitions of theme or tone to form an overall structure to the book. A fuller, more deliberately structured expansion of this approach could be really impressive.

Treasures was a quick read that was over too soon. I’m looking forward to seeing what Mr. Barilla brings out next.