A decade ago, I was browsing the poetry shelves at The Tattered Cover in Denver, CO, one of the best independent bookstores in the country, when I came across Quan Barry's first book Asylum. It had a fantastic cover and had won the 2000 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, one of the top contests on my list. I added it to the stack of books growing on the floor at my feet and eventually cracked the spine when I'd returned to my apartment in Fayetteville, AR, at the conclusion of the trip. As I read, I remember being transformed and knowing I had found a new poet to love. To my delight, the book was actually assigned later in a grad school class.
In 2004, when Barry's second book came out, again from the University of Pittsburgh Press, I ordered it ASAP. While I love Controvertibles and see the same shimmering language and agile poet there, I confess to loving Asylum more.
Last year, Barry's third book, Water Puppets, came out, again from U Pitt Press, this time winning the 2010 Donal Hall Prize in Poetry. I have been gradually reading it over the last month or so and am so happy to say that the book lives up to its predecessors.
If you haven't read Barry's work, what you need to know up front is that these are political poems while also being deeply personal in the sense that they struggle with what it means to be a "person" in this chaotic, war-fraught 21st century world. The tenor of the poems reminds me of that classic, "The Colonel" by Carolyn Forche. While the poems are not necessarily autobiographical, they do reflect Barry's history or having been born in Saigon and then being raised in Massachusetts. The Vietnam War permeates the pages, but these poems are not historical relics. Barry also touches on popular culture, often referencing popular films and current cultural figures. Of course, there are references to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the way those poems echo the poems that center around Vietnam just blow me away. I have to read these books slowly, as the poems will not allow me to look away from the tragedy of war. That may be Barry's greatest gift, her ability to take on tragedy and transform it into something with a "terrible beauty" (a la Yeats).
As to the craft in these poems, I am swept away by Barry's language, which dances from common diction to elevated academic phrases, and by the way the poems move on the page. There are poems here that are composed of short lines and only a handful of stanzas, and then there are poems with long, Whitmanesque lines that run for several pages, and there are also prose poems, that form that always makes me wonder (in Barry's case, a positive wonder).
In fact, it is one of those prose poems that gives insight into the title of the book, Water Puppets. The prose poem is one of several toward the end of the book that are simply titled "poem." This one begins:
The stage knee-deep and so blue it looks solid. Then a pod of dragons surfaces, their golden bodies lithe and playfully skimming the surface, the water beading on their backs.
This led me to make one of those wonderful discoveries where poetry teaches me about some new thing in this world. I learned about the long tradition of water puppetry in Vietnam. (Just google the phrase and check out the videos on YouTube. Amazing.) However, the poem isn't simply an attempt to describe a traditional art. Instead, it moves beyond that and leaves me gasping. After a description of the puppets and their movements, the speaker says this:
Know that the United States considered using nuclear weapons against these people. Close your eyes. Imagine the guilt-free life you might live someday, then remember why you don't deserve it. Eventually the puppets whirl down into the obscuring blue water.
Being Vietnamese and American, Barry is positioned to expose both sides of the war and its aftermath. She transforms that experience into an empathy for the global community as it struggles with our current conflicts. But before I get to that, I want to say something about the craft of the poem I've just quoted. Look at the first sentence. We first get 'the stage' juxtaposed against 'knee-deep' and the knowledge that it 'looks solid,' which forces us to realize it is NOT solid. With that sentence and its sounds, its phrasing, I am hooked. I am transported and willing to be told something new. Also, do not underestimate the skill it takes to weave nuclear weapons into a poem about a puppet show and pull it off.
Now, here's a poem that moves to a more global view. "If only I had been able to form the idea of a substance that was spiritual" begins:
The soul is segmented.
Even in the dark it glows, each thoracic bulb
brilliant, pastel, both primordial & futuristic.
Once I saw a pod of sperm whales sleeping
in the long night of the sea, their bodies
vertical like a forest, tails to the surface,
the massive trove of their heads
like stopped pendulums trained down straight
toward gravity. It too was a vision
of the corporeal rendered faultless.
What else is there to say? That I should have
The poems in this book open up all of the complicated relationships between people, poems that question how we justify violence, not only against each other in a formal war, but also against the flora and the fauna and the planet itself (the cover photo is of either an oil derrick or a natural gas derrick burning off some excess). The long poem "Meditations" takes us through the justifications for the invasion of Iraq, the release of Nelson Mandela, persecutions in China, back to Vietnam, to Haiti and Afghanistan, and elsewhere while the speaker engages with a group of people clearly having some culture shock. Another long poem, although with a completely different form, "History," exposes the male gaze / female object relationship and openly discusses how this can't help but effect a woman's sexuality. And then, there is this very short poem, which I will quote here in its entirety.
I dreamed of this--each night the image of it
Burning on the ocean, Lima's great white cross
With its thousand lights, its truth. What I prayed for:
Make me a better person, make me forget you.
Now, there's no one I'm praying to forget (although I remember those times in my life vividly); however, that first part of the prayer "Make me a better person" seems to be what the speaker grapples with throughout the book. It echoes how I felt after reading almost every single poem in the book, and that feeling provided the hope to balance the tragedy exposed in many of the poems.
Buy or Borrow a Copy of This Book Today
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011