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Living poetry: Want by Rick Barot

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My initial response to Rick Barot’s Want (aside from the inevitable “ooh” that comes from trailing one’s fingers across a volume from Sarabande Books) was to think, immediately, that he is an amazing poet. This is someone whose work I’m almost obliged to share with others. Indeed, the first three poems in this, his second collection, are currently jockeying (along with a 20-minute rendition of a Pink Floyd song) in my mind for inclusion in this review. All are damn fine poems, and I want to tell you about all of them. I want, as a critic, to tell you about most of the poems in this book, to gaze in as minute detail as is possible into the soundness of the lines and the vividness of the imagery. Alas, criticism, like any other form of writing, is a negotiation with such competing desires (and with those doubts that shadow them).

Yet, as above, a thematic exploration of desire could easily devolve into the sort of mundane detail that mars the worst of the confessional mode. However, in Want, Barot avoids this and countless other pitfalls, not simply through the selection of particular narratives that have meaning beyond the confessional self, but by also contextualizing those narratives — with other narratives — within the broader scope of history, myth, and art.

Take for example, the first poem, “Echo”, which suggests the myth of Echo and Narcissus:

And what part of his reflection will tell me who I am,
that I am standing a little away, wanting in on his story?

Days I am cup, slice, gray, need, therapy. The headache
of the repetition of his voice, telling himself some story.

As the repetition of “story” reveals, this poem is a ghazal. To me, one of the appeals (and major difficulties) of writing a ghazal is that each couplet may be a wholly independent thought, like a poem within the poem. The challenge then becomes how to bridge the white spaces between stanzas. How does one hold such a poem together?

As the next two stanzas make clear, Barot opts to compound these tiny imagistic narratives:

I am in the city looking for him, forcibly drawn to
the square glass eyes. A light is on in the hundredth story.

The street black as an eel, the wavering look of him
inside a puddle. I play lamp-post to the dark of this story.

Here, we no longer have the Echo about whom Ovid wrote; we have several (I think). The speaker — perhaps autobiographical, perhaps not — of each anecdote echoes the experience of Echo ever at the edge of Narcissus’s experience, ever longing. More, we have moved from the pastoral setting evoked by the myth into a contemporary cityscape of “square glass eyes” and a “street black as an eel” only to return, by the end of the poem to that pastoral scene the myth evokes when Barot writes “I get to be the woods, quiet just under the tongue-tied / lightning, the ever-responding thunder. Bleak with story.”

Since “Echo” is the first poem of the book, the refrain of the word “story” becomes emblematic of Barot’s task here. In short, Want is a book that displays a deep understanding of the way that narratives about who we are (and by extension what we want, crave, desire) shape our lives — regardless of whether they are our own narratives or those (like myth) we’ve inherited. Indeed, the next poem, “Theories of the Visible” is a six section poem that infuses what might otherwise be a banal tale of the narrator’s youthful and amphetamine-fueled love for another man with a lyric contemplation of an ancient Greek statue, an exploration of Renaissance mores in Florence, meditations of Lorenzo de Medici, and descriptions of the way in which the painters of Lorenzo’s court developed theories of perspective and color:

…Trusting an improbable alchemy,
first they applied a layer of green onto

the body on a canvas, then incremental layers
of red. In the end, the blossoming flesh
appeared there, lit from within like a pear.

Thus, we have this luminous image of those soon-to-decay paintings juxtaposed against the author’s torrid fling (to describe it could render this essay NSFW). To my mind, such juxtaposition of such temporally disparate elements is evocative of Ezra Pound’s Cantos and, perhaps, the lyrics of the modern Greek poet C.P. Cavafy. Yet, whereas Pound’s juxtapositions further his own peculiar notions about culture and politics and Cavafy’s brief poems seek to mythologize his modern present, Barot uses history — both personal and collective —  to illuminate our present as the penultimate stanza of “Theories of the Visible” demonstrates:

…we saw a crow slowly take apart
a greasy paper bag on the grass, holding
down the bag with a foot as it ate each ripped
dirty piece.  What is it to be here but to want?

That final question carries throughout the book, resonating with diverse descriptive narratives of wanting like “K.” (a dramatic monologue based on a single-line entry in Kafka’s diary) and the tour de force “Like a Fire that Consumes All Before It”, which launches from a narrative of a 1992 flood in the Philippines that took the lives of thousands into a contemplation of specific love letters, familial memories, language itself, letters from Keats, and Dante’s Purgatorio.

Unfortunately, that final question also evokes my sole qualm (other than what seems an unfortunate typo in “Captivity Narrative”) with this book: how is it possible to write about want, desire, and the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves without exploring our consumer culture? Granted, images here and there throughout the book, such as the catalog of possessions neighbors pack up in the face of a brush fire in the “After Heraclitus” section of “Seven Poems”, hint at an understanding of how commercial and economic interests affect, obscure, and otherwise alter our wants, but the lack of that poem (or poems) leaves this project feeling incomplete to me.

Nevertheless, Barot is a poet of impressive power, and I want you to read this book. And if you’re not yet convinced, read two poems: “Magnolia” and “Psalm with a Phrase from Beckett.” Both appear in the book and are indicative of the lyrical fireworks you’ll find.

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