- Writers Retreat
- Writers in School
- OUR SUPPORTERS
Rick Barot is a poet whose body of work I have plumbed thoroughly, gratefully, and—as is rarely the case—in chronological order. The Darker Fall, his 2002 debut collection, introduced the elements, both stylistic and thematic, that I have come to expect from a Barot poem and that keep me returning for more. There is the incisive observation, as in “an owl-faced parking meter,” “the breeze empties/ of warmth,” and “the radiator/shedding its white scabs of paint.” Who can see the world in quite the same way after reading such lines? Then, observation harnessed to spare, startling insights, like this one: “remember: you are as young//as you will ever be. The taxis, beetle-shaped/ and hurtling, keep carrying you away.” And of course, there is the nuanced commitment to ekphrasis and the visual arts, captured here in this stunning stanza from “Bonnard’s Garden”:
Then the girl’s scream, her finger stirring
the emerald tadpole-water, the sound
breaking into his glimpse for an instant
then subsiding to become a part of the picture.
When Barot’s second collection, Want, was published in 2008, I told my partner I was going to pick up the sequel to a book I loved. After all, wasn’t Want an essential, even an inevitable continuation of The Darker Fall? Isn’t desire both cause and effect of our greatest plunges and plummets?
In the first collection, I had gathered clues as to what the second might contain. For instance:
I know someone who thinks desire
merely taffies the mind’s one want, which is
to be free of want.But I don’t live in a bamboo
grove, can’t stare at the philosophical cranes
for more than a while.
A little deeper inside The Darker Fall, and here we are again, mulling on the nature of desire:
I might stand on the street biding my want.The Flatiron bisects
all the sky I can see.There is trash.The legless chair nodding.
Wires sprung from the torn gut of plastic bag.Carpets, endured
to ugliness. Dialogue of I was really torn. Did you know I waited? Did
Then, the last page and the first book’s final question—“who doesn’t want//to be left used,/ windsock-hollow?”—which at once inaugurates another volume.
Want is a collection as numinous as it is grounded in the things of this world. Barot positions his speaker as one who casts light into shadows, pairing each poignant abstraction with enduring particulars. In his speaker’s words, “I play lamp-post to the dark of this story.” But why bother? You may ask: the darkness is so vast, and desire the deepest rabbit hole of all. And yet: “what’s beneath is sometimes fathomable.” And yet: “the tenacious heart doesn’t end, though no illusion/ has held up, no premise or structure still stands.” And yet: “If I believed in love’s necessary mutability, I had/ also come to believe in what could be kept, the silver/ bearing the ashes of all my living and all my dead.”
The second collection negotiates the nature of want and traces this speaker’s shifting relationship to desire. The reader of The Darker Fall followed by Want will witness a transformation, beginning with the speaker who, early on in Barot’s canon, “wanted the day spooled back,/ all the way back, to the dark under/ the dresser, the dark inside cabinets, inside suitcases and bottles, all the way back, to the night.” Hear how the younger voice yearned for a fresh start, a do-over, a chance to have it all again. But the voice that emerges near the end of the second book is able to embrace—or at least to accept—the forward movement of time, and consequently, the inevitable partings-with and lettings-go: “things harbored and lost at once, like water changed from ice to liquid to lost air.” The older voice is able to name desire as an ongoing metamorphosis: yearning, then possession, then disappearance/ return to ephemera.
And now there is this third book, Chord, just released by Sarabande in 2015. I have been anticipating Barot’s new collection for some time now—longing for it, in fact. Will Chord make of Barot’s previous books a trilogy?
I return to the final poem of Want, pondering this question. Where does the speaker leave us this time? In my margin, I have starred the lines, “one eye/open though no longer seeing.” Here he describes a gull, flown inland and frozen in the Iowa winter. But in poetry, of course, and particularly in Barot’s poems, we are never seeing only that which is before us; we are also seeing that which is beyond. I begin to notice how the speaker’s own perspective shifts here, too, at the end, from those spare, startling insights to what we might, if we wanted, call insounds.
How does the ear see differently than the eye? The water is “utterly silent.” It is harder to notice what is not there than to notice what is. The water in this landscape is frozen, so it is not flowing, not making its signature sounds. And yet, the speaker notices. He is attuned, even to the silence.
And then the final stanza, the last words we will read before entering the volume titled Chord: “The day is a white octave, breathing/its snow, and the bird/ delicate, like a bone inside the ear.”
Most simply, a chord is a combination of three (or more) pitches sounded simultaneously, creating a harmony of notes or colors. “To strike a chord,” in our common vocabulary, is to resonate—to cause one to pause, listen, and linger. In all respects, Rick Barot’s third collection fully embodies its name.
This book harmonizes with the two that came before, while stretching, too—reaching to reveal Barot’s ever-increasing dexterity as a maker of songs. There is perhaps an analogy here with the way a pianist extends his pinky finger farther than he thinks he can in order to complete the chord, then trembles at the unexpected grace.
I’ve long regarded Barot as a non-confessional poet, even an anti-confessional poet, but in this new book, I see how he begins to harmonize a more personal pitch with the art-historical, the botanical, the etymological (and more). In his meditation “On Gardens,” he writes:
When I read about the garden
designed to bloom only white flowers,
I think about the Spanish friar who saw one
of my grandmothers, two hundred years
Removed, and fucked her. If you look
at the word colony far enough, you see it
travelling back to the Latin
of inhabit, till, and cultivate.
This is a more intimate voice here than in Barot’s early poems, more direct and candid. Our speaker still contemplates the natural world, but he brings us closer than ever before to the nature of contemplation itself:
As I write this, there’s snow
falling, which means that every
angry thought is as short-lived as a match.
The night is its own white garden.
The speaker’s family begins to appear as well, to populate these poems the way single notes slowly populate a sonata, then a symphony. There is an “uncle’s funeral,” a “mother’s sixtieth birthday,” a sister with whom the speaker argues “about everything: the time she smashed a toy/ airplane to my forehead,/ the time she/ sliced my cheek with a cracker, the time/ I pushed her down a rubble heap/ we were playing on.” Now the damper pedal has been pushed down, and these notes glide together, flowing in a swift, autobiographical stream. We turn the page. We ride the crescendo of sounds and stories.
The next poem begins, “When my sister got her diagnosis,/ I bought an airplane ticket.” The reader is ready to follow this speaker to his sister’s bedside, or perhaps her hospital room. We are slipping into the mindset of a movie as these opening credits (we think) begin to roll. Then, Barot deftly reveals the power of an enjambment paired with an unexpected conjunction. It is not “an airplane ticket// to another city.” The reader may have to rewind: “I bought an airplane ticket//but to another city, where I stared/ at paintings that seemed victorious//in their relation to time.” This is not going to be the story of his sister after all. We may have thought we were boarding a narrative plane, but the flight turns lyric instead, doubles back to observation, insight, and the essential, redemptive value of art.
Barot’s poems aren’t films so much as they are still-life paintings animated by sound, color, and texture. The reader doesn’t learn what becomes of the sister. This is not, after all, a confessional poem. Yet the reader learns there is a sister for whom the speaker anguishes—her mortality, and perhaps also his own: “Then,/ the paintings I looked at the longest://the bowls of plums and peaches,/ the lemons, the pomegranates//like red earths.” There is that signature image-making again. There is that seeing of the whole world in a grain of sand, an orb of pomegranate. Then, this: “In my mouth,/ the raw starch. In my mouth, the dirt.” Barot surprises us again. Another pitch is folded seamlessly into the chord. How visceral this world beyond seeing becomes! There is the visual, the aural, and now, ever moreso, the gustatory, “mouth” repeated twice, the taste of the earth inside it in the form of starch and dirt. In Barot’s poems, there is so much rain and snow and fire. The elements are always accounted for, yet here he begins to bring what is elemental in this world even closer to the surface of the page. How intimate to feel the earth on one’s tongue, and then to place the earth on the reader’s tongue in an act of poetic communion.
Barot has been, at times, elusive on the subject of love. In this book, we feel filial love fiercely and glimpse it with a greater specificity than ever before. We feel, quite literally, the touch of the past, Barot’s deepest engagement yet with the tactile sense: “now when/I reach for the doorknob/ or the gas pump, the sharp/ charge on my fingers is/childhood calling its child back.” And here also, the olfactory sense, most ancient and primal of all: “What does it mean/ […] that/ this smell is exactly//the smell of my/ grandfather’s sickbed//brew, the last-resort/ swamp liquid// a Chinatown-alley/herbalist prescribed//for him on that/summer at the end[…]”?
The pianist presses harder on the keys. There is a mounting urgency, a crescendo that rises throughout this book, and then, inevitably, there is a slower movement—andante instead of allegro. While this collection is the most autobiographical of Barot’s books to date, it is also the most meta. The poems are sensuously complex, perhaps the most complex of Barot’s canon—that chord again, that striking of multiple, complementary pitches—but they are also the most explicit and useful primers for the making of poems. This book could be taught as a craft text inasmuch as a work of masterful contemporary literature. Hear this:
What was I talking about,
talking about the place of the political
in poems, the students writing down what I said
to them. That you have to keep distressing the canvas
of the personal. That you need to ask what is
left out for beauty’s sake, to see how the unspoken
will inflect the things you have allowed yourself to say.
And the “left out,” the “unspoken”—what better example does this collection contain than “Child Holding Potato,” the poem that begins with a sister’s diagnosis and ends with the speaker’s mouth full of dirt?
There are other noteworthy examples of this “distressing of the canvas/ of the personal,” too. They come at the end, when our speaker turns toward romantic love:
We are two figures on an early spring beach
And what I want is to be outside
Of us, to be able to read us not as we are
But as figures without a story, without ending.
The speaker chooses the lyric over the narrative once more. He recommits to it as the collection gives way from chords to arpeggios, the beginning of an end: The image of the side of your face. The image/of your arm pointing at the lighthouse.” What’s left out is what the side of the lover’s face actually looks like, or the lover’s arm, but by this omission, we are attuned instead to how the speaker “wants to be outside us and to see us.” This poem isn’t a painting of these two particular figures on an early spring beach. It is a painting of this speaker’s recollection of that intimate occasion and his reflection upon it.
Barot is writing how it is to write of love without exploiting the beloved. He is showing us how we too might write of love without exploiting the beloved—without giving away too much. Why else would this speaker reveal at the end: “we have already gone/ back to the car. There are stones and shells in my pocket./ Dead things. Even though this is a love poem.” Of course it is: a love poem inflected with all the things (and stones and shells) the speaker has “left out for beauty’s sake.”
In the last poem of this book, “After Darwish,” Barot’s refrain turns incantatory—“I want from love only the beginning.” Not ________. Not ______. It is easier to name what is not wanted than what is. For instance, “Not the promenade and its rain/ at 3 AM, the blooms of two umbrellas/ and our argument beneath them.” We don’t learn the particulars of this argument, any more than we learn the outcome of the sister’s diagnosis. But if I have learned anything from this volume, it is that these poems are less about what happened than about the impact—we might even say the resonance—their happening left behind.
Chord is the capstone of a provocative trilogy. We can only hope it becomes the tenor in a forthcoming quartet. Where might we travel next, stylistically and thematically, with Barot’s speaker? The last poem is awash in beginnings, a glissando of “the beginning of,” “the beginning of,” “the beginning of.” A book called Origin perhaps? A book called New Rain? Whatever the title, know that I want it already.
By Rick Barot
Paperback, 9781941411032, 78 pp.