Gerarld Barrax Sr. uses a phenomenal conceit in his poem “Barriers.” Barrax’s speaker in “Barriers” is telling a simple story of stepping outside one morning, and seeing a dead bird that a feral cat left on his front sidewalk. The speaker reveals that the cat stalks the woods behind their fences and “perches on a stump / that’s a throne among the weeds.” He writes it off and minimizes the bird’s death so he doesn’t have to think about it or have his pregnant wife see it. What Barrax is doing with this cat and its kill is setting up a metaphor where the cat is an individual who commits a hate crime, and the bird is the victim of that hate crime.
The first way Barrax elucidates this is by describing the cat as “black and white” and by creating the image of the bird as being “black and white wings.” Hate crimes and the issues that incite them are commonly boiled down to race—black versus white. What is interesting here is that both the cat and the bird are described as being black and white, not black or white. They aren’t one or the other, they’re both, which makes the root issue of the murder seem murky. The dead bird left on the sidewalk doesn’t translate as the literal corpse of the hate crime victim, but rather as the “proof at [his] feet,” perhaps in the form of a newspaper with that story as the front page headline. The speaker had been wondering if “[the cat] ever made a kill,” and when he finally sees that it has, he chooses to “sweep the thing into the grass.” The cat also “hunts the woods behind [their] house,” illustrating that this violence has come right up to the speaker’s back door, and yet he still chooses to ignore it.
He minimizes this very real death into a metaphoric cat and bird, hunter and hunted scenario, and then reduces it further to the bird being “a little chicken, like the kind [they] sometimes dress for dinner.” It’s ironic that Barrax has his speaker reduce this tragedy to such a common thing, when he also has the speaker express that he wants to “take [his] stand against the relativists who reduce moral questions to shades of gray.” He wants to fight back against the notion that the truth is relative to each individual’s perspective, but at the same time he turns his perspective in a direction that ignores the very issue he proclaims to stand up against. The metaphor of the cat and the bird that represents the murderer and the victim, and the reduction of those figures into that metaphor rebuilds the relativist ideals that the speaker is trying to deconstruct.