by Jane Wong | Contributing Writer
This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. At 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 15, Rick Barot will read online via the SAL website, and the reading will be available to ticket holders for a week after the reading.
How can we write with and through the elegy? Rick Barot’s fourth collection of poetry, The Galleons (Milkweed Editions, 2020), considers poetry as a means of human connection—a way to recover lost fragments, to hold the warm palm of past and present encounters. In “Ode to Interruptions,” the final poem in the collection, Barot writes: “I used to think that to write poems, to make art, / meant trying to transcend the prosaic elements // of the self, to arrive at some essential plane, where / poems were supposed to succeed. I was wrong.” Building on his previous book Chord (winner of the PEN/Open Book Award), The Galleons continues to challenge assumptions of what poetry is supposed to accomplish. The book does not seek epiphany; instead, it “peels at a corner / of wallpaper and sees more wallpaper underneath.” In thinking about elegiac layers, this book reverberates with the spectral thread of personal and collective history. Opening up “the marrow of geography,” The Galleons is Barot’s most vulnerable and lyrically stunning book to date.
The cover of The Galleons features an art piece by Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan—a team of two Filipino Australian artists. Here, a galleon is intricately fashioned with cardboard—calling forth experiences of migration, displacement, colonialism, and capitalism. Created from the cardboard of shipped items, their installation makes history that is often forgotten and/or silenced tangibly felt. The Galleons is similarly experienced on a lyrical, syntactical, and sensory scale. Throughout, the book unveils the layered aftermath of colonialism and capitalist excess—tied intimately with Barot’s familial migration from the Philippines to the U.S. The book’s title series features the names of ships leaving from the Philippines between 1564 and 1815, as well as what is hauntingly carried in these ships. He writes: “slaves that were called indios / or chinos, nails, tools, iron hoops, fireworks, opals—elegy?”
The massive scale of imperialism is closely tied to Barot’s lineage of migration, grief, and resilience. The book, in part, is an elegy for Barot’s grandmother, who lived until she was 92 years old. “The Galleons 5” interweaves archival recordings with his grandmother and his own narrative. While this poem entangles the past and the present, he purposefully uses direct quotes in his grandmother’s voice: “We didn’t want to be noticed, so we put charcoal on our faces. / I listen to the hours of tape, of the two of us at the dining table. // All the girls, looking like dirt. / My father was always drinking / Questions about the town, her parents, the names of people . . .” The poem can be read in multiple ways, opening up like a kaleidoscope of the heart. Lines like “I listen to her with my skin and my eyes” suggest the visceral, synesthetic experience of lineage. Indeed, what does it mean to listen beyond one’s ears? As in “The Galleons 5,” many of the poems in the book move as a journey, leading us somewhere we might not intend to go. Grief and love, as Barot reminds us, pours forth in surprising and numinous ways. In“The Galleons 1,” he writes: “Her story is part of something larger, it is a part / of history. No, her story is an illumination // of history, a matchstick lit in the black seam of time.” Certainty pivots elsewhere.
In reading and re-reading The Galleons, a quote from Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury” comes to mind: “The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.” Here, poems expand outward—from that which is tangible, lived-through. Barot widens the circumference of lived experience in all its bittersweet rings. In “The Galleons 3,” he begins the poem with the simple act of talking to someone on a plane: “I am telling the man beside me / about my life as a teacher and my life // as a poet. He is in his early 30s, served / in the Marine Corps in Afghanistan, // and now works as a long-haul truck driver.” This conversation leads us elsewhere—toward intimacy and tenderness. The veteran offers a picture of his dog on his phone, and they both marvel at this shared wonder: “a brown dog / with an old dog’s muzzle, one eye // softly brown, the other eye marbled gold / and green, like the weather on another planet.” Throughout, these poems recover the tender tethers between us: domestic workers on a weekday morning in Brooklyn, a Palestinian girl carrying a ladder, Barot reading with a flea on his forearm. From conversations on the Cascades 501 train (“They had to open me up—the man is now telling the other man.”) to a meadow growing on the side of a building (“I stop because a kind of meadow has grown on the side // of a building like the tallness of a heart”), Barot connects these layered moments. The Galleons reminds us of the necessity of being vigilant in the world around us. For, there is always something in danger of being lost. From “The Grasshopper and the Cricket”: “The languages spoken only by a few remaining / people. Or by one remaining person. Or lost // totally, except for the grainy recordings in archives, / mysterious as the sounds made by extinct birds.”
To return: how can we write with and through elegy, in a world teeming with real loss and real life? In Barot’s poetry, the question is not what poetry can do, but what occurs when you write poetry. From “The Flea”: “I had no faith / in my flaws, but I had a grudging faith // in the particular.” For Barot, poetry attempts to hold onto that which is lost, to create an archive not in a museum or library somewhere, but right in front of you. That particular sensitivity leads us toward a lyric so precise and evocative, it leaps off the page like a flea singing along your arm.
Jane Wong has published poems in places such as Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019, Best American Poetry 2015, American Poetry Review, POETRY, AGNI, Third Coast, and others. Her essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, Black Warrior Review, Ecotone, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, and This is the Place: Women Writing About Home. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships and residencies from the U.S. Fulbright Program, Artist Trust, the Fine Arts Work Center, Bread Loaf, Willapa Bay AiR, Hedgebrook, the Jentel Foundation, SAFTA, and the Mineral School. She is the author of Overpour from Action Books, and How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, which is forthcoming from Alice James Books. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.