Joy blooms within ‘Mouths of Garden,' the harrowing new poetry collection by Barbara Fant

The Columbus expat returns from Los Angeles to host a book release at Lincoln Theatre on Thursday, May 12

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Barbara Fant

Barbara Fant composed the poems that make up her new collection Mouths of Garden over a number of years. As she worked, she held a larger narrative in mind, embracing verse as a means to explore not only the trauma experienced by Black women, she said, but more importantly the healing power of Black women.

As suggested by the book’s title, this hasn’t been an easy process, requiring constant tending of the soil. Indeed, even after the weather breaks with “But tonight,” a poem that falls toward the back half of the collection and finds Fant shaking “the shrapnel of racism” from her hair, there remain echoes of past pains, which continue to vibrate beneath the surface even after the poet has turned her petals toward the sun.

“I intentionally don’t use the term ‘happy.’ I use the term ‘joy,’ which is something I’ve been studying a lot,” said Fant, 34, who moved from Columbus to Los Angeles seven months ago but returns this week for a book release at Lincoln Theatre on Thursday, May 12, which will be accompanied by an exhibit courtesy artist April Sunami, who illustrated the Mouths of Garden cover. “Lupita Nyong’o was quoting the great poet Kahlil Gibran, and she basically said that joy was not the absence of pain, but happiness in spite of it. For me, joy doesn’t mean everything else goes away or is removed, but it means you can have happiness in the midst of all that. And that’s the belly of joy. It can coexist with pain, with grief. I’m never going to get over my mother’s death, right? But I am going to get through it.”

Fant addresses her mother’s passing in a handful of poems, including “Twice 15,” which Fant wrote at age 30, struck by the realization that she’d now existed half her life absent her mother, who died of cancer when the poet was just 15.

“I’ve learned a lot about my mom from talking to my aunt, her sister, and from talking to her cousins. Those are the ways I’ve pieced together the pieces of my mother, because I don’t know her, right? I knew her as a young girl, but I didn’t get to know her as an adult,” Fant said. “As I get older, though, I’m reminded of my mother’s strength and her voice and her power. She was calm, but she was a threat. And I can see that in myself. I don’t look like my mother — I think my sister looks a lot like her — but I do recognize her backbone in myself.”

Spending more time with her mom in the writing process, Fant said she learned to focus less on her grief, recalling the good times the two shared: dancing in the living room; shutting off all the lights in the living room, curling up on the couch and pretending to be in the audience while watching a concert DVD; driving to the record store on new release day. “Sometimes when you experience heavy trauma, when you look back all you see is grief, all you feel is loss,” Fant said. “Writing this reminded me that there were so many happy times.”

The cover of "Mouths of Garden" by poet Barbara Fant, which features a painting by Columbus artist April Sunami

Of course, these discoveries arrived amid a consistently tumultuous time, and the outside world remains a damning presence in poems like “Instinct,” which references the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Ty’re King, among others, and “Target,” which wrestles with the mental weight of living burdened by fear. “America, the barrel of a gun,” Fant writes, “coughs bullets through Black bodies.”

Elsewhere, the recollections turn more personal, with Fant recalling her upbringing in Youngstown, Ohio, where even the games the kids played in the streets could ripple with real-life violence. In one poem, she recalls how the neighborhood kids would play drive-by-shooter with water pistols. “It’s like, oh, my goodness. Look what this does!” Fant said. “Violence begets violence, and you’re reenacting this as a kid, when you don’t even really know what you’re reenacting. … In a sense, you don’t get the chance to be innocent, because you’re growing up in a space where you don’t have that luxury.”

Despite the heavy nature of the material, a lightening takes gradual hold as the book progresses, terms such as “caskets,” “bullets” and “graves” slowly receding as Fant finds comfort first within her family (“For my sister:”) and then eventually herself. As this happens, Fant awakens to the transformative power of her words, a realization that surfaces in works such as “watch your mouth” and “lineage of throats,” in which she traces her poet’s soul back through generations, writing, “there are journeys of throats in my throat/a lineage of thunder in my blood.”

“I started learning [the power of my voice] being on the poetry stage, but then also in my prayer life,” Fant said. “I have a deep prayer life, and I was probably in my early 20s when I started realizing, oh, wow, I have the power to call things into existence, or to call things as I would like them to be. Then also, as a writer, my words have the power to not just break but heal.”

This healing is evidenced most cleanly in “this could have been how we bloomed,” a poem that closes the collection and sets up the next stage of Fant’s life as it begins to take root in Los Angeles. “Wherever you find yourself planted, may you find life,” she writes. “May you be life, may you bloom.”

“My mother always loved the water, but never really got to see it, and now I live by the ocean,” Fant said. “My niece had never been on a plane, and then my sister took her for the first time to see me. And I got to show her a whole new world, a whole new way of life, you know what I mean? It's like, you can do anything you want to do. You can be anywhere you want to be.”