Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Loose Strife - Quan Barry (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Loose Strife.  Quan Barry.  University of Pittsburgh Press.  Pittsburgh, Pa.  2015.

Quan Barry is utterly magic. 

Not that smarmy bright light "and for my next trick..." magic.  Barry is magical because she instantly transports the reader to a new reality.  We recognize where we are at all times when reading Barry but also realize it has never looked quite so real in quite this way.

Whether she is writing about the killing fields of Cambodia or the tunnels of Cu Chi, and we have all heard the horrors, the reader is whisked to a reality previously invisible and unavailable.

Barry pulls off the remarkable feat of being clear like crystal but hard as diamond, hard as nails, and at the same time so gently and lovingly human, it is almost impossible to reconcile the two.  Barry does it.

Loose Strife is in this case -  the endless battle we all endure in trying to become humane.  Quan Barry is quite simply masterful.

Loose Strife

Listen  closely  as  I  sing  this.   The man  standing  at  the  gate
tottering on his remaining limb is a kind of metronome,  his one
leg planted firmly on the earth. Yes, I have made him beautiful

because I aim to lay all my cards on the table. In the book review
the  critic  writes,  "Barry  seeks  not  to judge but to understand."
Did she want us to let her be, or does she want

to be there  walking  the  grounds  of  the  old  prison  on  the hill
of the poison  tree where comparatively a paltry twenty thousand
died? In the first room with the blown up

black-and-white  of  a  human  body  gone  abstract  someone has
to  turn   and   face   the   wall   not  because  of  the  human  pain
represented in the photo but because of her calmness.

the   tranquility   with   which    she    tells    us    that   her   father
and  her sister  and  her  brother  were  killed.   In graduate school
a whole workshop devoted to an image of a woman with bleach

thrown   in   the   face   and   the   question    of   whether   or   not
the   author   could   write,   "The   full  moon  sat  in  the  window
like a calcified eye, the woman's face aglow with a knowingness."

I  felt  it  come  over  me  and I couldn't stop. I tried to pull myself
together  and  I  couldn't.   They  were  children.  An army of child
soldiers.  In the room papered with photos of the Khmer Rouge

picture   after    picture   of   teenagers,    children   whose   parents
were   killed   so   that   they   would   be  left  alone  in  the  world
to do the grisly work that precedes paradise.

And  the  photos  of   the victims,  the woman holding her newborn
in   her  arms  as  her   head  is  positioned  in  a  vise,  in  this  case
the vise an instrument not of torture

but  of  documentation,  the  head  held  still as the camera captures
the   image,   the   thing   linking   all    their  faces,  the  abject  fear
and total hopelessness as exists

in  only  a   handful  of  places  in  the  history  of  the visible world.
For  three  $US  per  person  she  will  guide  you through what was
Tuol Sleng prison, hill of the strychnine tree.

Without   any   affectation   she   will   tell   you   the  story  of  how
her    father   and    her    sister    and    her    brother    went   among
the two million dead.  There are seventy-four forms

of poetry in this country and each one is still meant to be sung.


PLEASE NOTE, TBOP was unable to reproduce Quan Barry's poems exactly as they appear in her book.  We apologize profusely to both Ms. Barry and to the University of Pittsburgh Press.  We here at TBOP will continue to try to improve our technical proficiencies.  A thousand monkeys, a thousand typewriters.


Perhaps a word about style.  Today's book of poetry has no clue why Barry has chosen a variety of formal constructs for her poems.  These deliberate forms are consistent blocks, columns of text with perfect margins down both sides.  I'm sure it means something and I assure you there isn't a comma out of place in these panoramic puzzles.  But I don't know what it means and don't really care.  Why would I?  Loose Strife is a solid as it gets, Quan Barry is a stone cold heavyweight.  Period.

How is it possible that one person knows what Quan Barry knows?  Who can know this?  How is it possible that Quan Barry riffs across the water as though she were the Siren of Time.

Do you get the idea that TBOP likes this absolutely stunning book?  Loose Strife compels you to turn the page.

Noli Me Tangere

&  I  cried  out  in  Aramaic,  the
tongue  of  the  only  god, Rabbi,
it's me!
Noli  me  tangere,  he whispered,
&     the     world    went     black.
Don't cleave to me.

Comfort   me   with   apples  is  a
mistranslation.    What    the     J-
writer meant:
Sustain    me   with   raisins.   Put
down    a   bedding   of   apricots.
Sleep with me.

The  last  time  we  spoke  on  the
phone     one   final   moment   of
Take  care,  he  said,  but  I  knew
what     he    was    really   saying.
Don't need me.

In   the  Semitic   light  I  mistook
him        for        the        gardener,
something in the look
of  his  hands. Give  me  the body,
I    cried.    I   am   of    his   flock.
Believe me.

The  email  claims  I   am   a  lady
who  is  very much  at  the  top of
her game.
Now     if     only      I    lived    in
Milwaukee,     city     of       hops.
A reprieve for me.

That   a   woman's   touch   would
soil him. The  white  robe forever
marred.  So
much   of   what   he   preached  I
still             don't          understand
Sister, how it grieves me.

In   my   fantasies   I   imagine   a
dark   man  in   a  three  thousand
dollar suit,
the  man  a  heart  surgeon  with a
love   of    poetry.   Yeah      yeah.
It's beneath me.

When   the   world   ends   I   will
remember   bits  &  pieces  of  my
wicked ways. The seven demons
of  the   head.  The   sound  of our
moans     when    one     of    them
pleased me.

&   tell   the   others  I  am   risen
Then    he    points    away    from
himself & out into the
stony  world,  I imagine  his heart
beating  stay   but   his   face  says
leave me.

In   that    movie   with   the   teen
prostitute,    how    no   one   ever
touched her yet
the   maniac  took  up   a  gun.  So
many   ways   to  touch   someone.
Naive me.

& what of  it?  A  man  nailed like
a  bloody  flag   to  two  pieces  of
the  duality  of   the  word  cleave.
I  get   it  now.     He   was   trying
to free me.

I don't  know  it   yet  but it's  good
advice.   I   should   write  it   down
Star of  the sea  &  the  sea a sea of
bitterness.          Lord               God,
don't deceive me.


Barry does not hesitate to dance into the darkness where others fear to tread.  With chops like these she can do whatever she likes and thank you, thank you, thank you.

Reading Quan Barry for the first time makes me think of my younger self, makes me remember the first time I read Michael Ondaatje, Charles Bukowski, Kurt Vonnegut.  I remember those books, where I was at the time, and I know I am going to remember reading Barry forever.

These poems have heart and are heartlessly blunt.  These blunt poems have beauty in spite of the bloody wounds they sever open.

Loose Strife

Everyone dreams of being harmed.  It's easy.  If I were to restructure the narrative,

I   would   start   with   the   serial   killer   taking   his   wife's   face   in   his  hands

and  nodding  sagely   toward   the raggedy  young   woman   by   the   diner   door,

a  baby slung  on  her  hip.  "They're   the  invisible  ones,"  the   killer tells his wife

who  thirty years  later  tells  the  journalist who  once  lived as  a  teenage  runaway

hopping   from   rig  to  rig.   I  have   never   had   to   force  myself  to   stay  awake

as    the    journalist    did    as    she    hitched    cross-country.   I   have   never   had

to   adopt   extreme  behaviors  in   order  to  stay   alive.   But   once  I   needed help

and   every   single    person   who   drove   by   pretended   they   couldn't   see   me,

ostensibly       me      a     dirty      black        woman       in       an    oversized      coat

standing      by     the     ATM.       In       the      article       the      journalist      details

the     night     a      trucker     pulled    a    knife    on   her    then   told    her   to    run

then    a    different     night     when     a    woman's     mangled    body    was    found

in     a    truck-stop     dumpster     as     the     cab     the     journalist   was   riding   in

sat    filling      up,    all    over    the     landscape    the    young     runaways   tortured

and      killed,      pierced      with       metal,       their      bodies    completely    shaved.

So     many     ways     to     be    invisible,      so     many     ways       to     be     erased.

On   the  traffic  island   by  the   westside   Target   a   man  with   his  cardboard  sign

saying    any   little    thing    will    help.    Everyone     dreams    of    being     harmed.

Much       tougher        to       recover        from       the         dream        of       harming...

The   other   time   I   went   invisible   I   went    invisible    for    six    whole    weeks.

It   was  November.  I stood as my hands slowly froze, the whole world passing me by

even   as    I    started    crying.     After   9/11   a    friend    joked   that  a   black   man

in    a    UPS    uniform    and    a    truck    could    still    go    anywhere    he   pleased.

Tonight     if   I    could     go    anywhere     I    would   go    back   to   that    afternoon

when   the   last   photo   of   her    was   taken.  She's   so   young,   her  body a sapling

her   smile  goofy  and  adolescent,   self-conscious.   She  is  sitting   in   the   backseat

of  a  car,  this  murdered  girl,  the  one  he  tortured for weeks in the back of his trailer,

stringing  her  up  by  a  series  of  hooks  before  finally garroting her with bailing wire.

In    the    photo,   I    imagine    she   is   on    her    way    toward   a    body    of   water.

Something  that  will bear  her  up.  In  ancient  Greek  there  is  a  noun  for the blessing

of children.   EUTEKVIA.    Lord,    have    mercy    on    us.    She   is   fourteen   years   old.


These poems have power, magic and grace.  Hard to beat those three.

Quan Barry is spectacular, seriously.  These poems move us all one step closer to a better understanding of what it is to be human beans.

Reading these poems makes you feel smarter.


Quan Barry is the author of three previous poetry collections: Asylum, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize; Controvertibles; and Water Puppets, winner of the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry. She is also the author of the novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born. Barry has received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in both poetry and fiction. She is professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


“Violence across history, from Greek myth to modern American serial killers and the Cambodian genocide, animates this disturbing and graphically original fourth effort from Barry (Asylum). She utilizes dual-justified and unusually arrayed text to fit stark scenes where we find someone ‘hiding in a space meant/ for buckets and rags as// next door the soldiers/ drag away a young boy,’ or, in a modified ghazal, a witness at Golgotha watching ‘a man nailed like/ a bloody flag to two pieces of/ wood.’ Taking in ecological as well as human horror, falling gingko pods remind Barry of failing satellites, ‘all of which some day will come tumbling back.’ In a series of poems that belong together despite their diverse scenes, she tries ‘to describe the unimaginable/ in a time and a place when sadly everything is imaginable.’ Those vivid pictures, and their self-consciousness about what it means to narrate extremities, perhaps benefit from the book's origin in a collaboration between Barry and visual artist Michael Velliquette. And yet the book stands up, and stands out, on its own. Barry risks the lurid, and the knowing, but comes out more like a prophet, overwhelmed-sometimes sublimely so-by the first- and second-hand truths she must convey.”
      --Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Born in Saigon and raised in Boston, Barry is the author of three previous collections of poetry and a novel, She Weeps Each Time You're Born. In a review of Water Puppets (2011), one critic says, 'violence is a shocking misfortune that remains foreign, beyond [Barry's] personal borders.' And yet, in this book, Barry's poems take jarring, strange arrangements on the page: scrambled and center-spaced with black bars across lines like censored transcripts. The unusual use of space enacts a subtle violence on the reader, frustrating expectations of how poetry should appear. Likewise, 'loose strife' refers to the sowing of chaos in the tragic plays of the Oresteia, and an undercurrent of deconstructed Greek pervades the work ('Pandora's Box, from the Greek word / pithos, what in actuality was a jar, an urn'). In one poem, Barry quotes the aforementioned review and responds with a story of being 'robbed at gunpoint on a deserted road.' Barry offers a difficult, sophisticated look at violence in personal, historical, and textual forms."—ALA Booklist


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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