essay: Seeing Desire: On Rick Barot’s Want
reviewed by Richard Scheiwe
There is a line in the Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George that informs Rick Barot’s second collection of poetry, Want. The line, “What the eye arranges is what is beautiful” taken on two levels (subjective and objective) posits that an individual’s eye, an individual’s subjective seeing, determines beauty--and that one’s objective understanding of beauty is already predetermined across the board. This is the project inherent in Rick Barot’s poetry. The eye, moving around the planes of space and environment, cityscape to landscape to horizon, pieces together the mind’s reality both subjectively and objectively through a cataloguing of images.
Barot begins his collection with the ghazal “Echo”, which opens with an eye looking back at its source, trying to piece together what this person/thing consists of. Alluding to the myth of Echo (where the nymph’s voice is taken away, and can only repeat back what is said to her—and Echo’s falling into unrequited love for Narcissus), the focus here is on a visual echoing:
And what part of his reflection will tell me who I am, that I am standing a little away, wanting in on his story?
The reflection goes on and on through space, accumulating much on its way, but stable in its reflection of the “he”. Throughout this poem there is a person, or a thing, searching for his/her/its reality among an anxiously accumulating pastiche of images, objects, actions. Barot continues, “I am in the city looking for him, forcibly drawn to / the square glass eyes” and
A pistol, a knife, plastic tubing, plastic trash bags, spray gun, a wig, a brick of cash. These are the start of a story. The one who wrote the letters to begin with, his flawed love like violets in her hand. Let him be in the story.
Ever evasive of the center of the story, Barot moves with the thoughts of the “I,” observing a contemporary setting of detritus and light, attempting to understand how the object of affection, the “he”, can only love his reflection, and can only love himself, with such a story to be told, or retold. Do you see what I see? Let me in, the “I” seems to plead.
And just as a reflection may go on and on through space, the poem ends with a wonderful juxtaposition of echoing light and rumbling: between lightning and thunder. As lightning repeats itself in storm (as does thunder), so will thunder follow lightning at varying intervals. The lightning is “tongue-tied” and the thunder “ever-responding”. This intermingling is a superb rendering of the natural act of pursuit and escape, and the desire, conscious or instinctual, to attain hopefully what one wants in the end. But nothing is reconciled, ultimately, as is the case with Narcissus and Echo, who both fall victim to their respective faults: Narcissus a slave to his sight, Echo a slave to her voice. There is a search of imagery, a pursuit and escape, throughout this poem and throughout Want that hopes to reconcile the story of the individual’s mind with his/her piecing together of reality. And, maybe, reconciliation can be had.
Poem after poem in Want is highly wrought and pieced together. For the most part, the language is fluid and carries imagery sufficiently to the reader for the purposed effects. As he writes in “Theories of the Visible”,
In that city of architecture, of strict theories of the visible, perspective made a science, I love how emotion unraveled matter into metaphor, the mouth a star, the elbow a kingdom. Writing of his mistress’s pale beauty, Lorenzo de Medici likened it to the delicate white fat condensed around an animal’s kidneys…
The fluidity of language here makes it pleasing to move among such varying degrees of images and their vehicles, regardless of Barot’s temptation to poeticize at times. Viewing the beloved’s body as the locus of emotion and that respective emotion’s object (the mouth becomes a star, the elbow becomes a kingdom), Barot continues where he left off with his project in the closing lines of “Echo”; he has a strong and directed ability to pursue a difficult line of thinking eloquently and unabashedly, moving between the subjective and objective without the reader noticing at first. The reader can reread these poems with new eyes and new understandings time and time again.
One cannot argue against the opinion that Rick Barot’s poems are incredibly well put together--by a poet who has a gift for the subtleties of language and peculiarly beautiful imagery. And his sense of form and construction is impressive. There is a feeling of the Expansive movement to his poetry as narratives are continually unfolding and refolding. But there is a bit too much of a reliance on fashioning a voice that attempts to balance eloquence and disruptiveness, i.e. the complete sentence juxtaposed with the fragment. At times it can be too disruptive and perplexing to the reader because of how solid Barot is at writing in complex, almost Metaphysical-poet language. As he writes in the first poem under the grouped title “Seven Poems”: “The swallows’ time. Not like fish schooling / into one contour of grace, but like leaves / scattering in a parking lot.” This seesawing has the potential for creating nice rhythms and movements in a poem, but it seems a poetry that is already laden with accumulating images (especially images whose origins are aesthetic in nature, such as marble statues, paintings, etc.), compounded with a disruption of language-sense, runs the risk of feeling poeticized. It is an unsettling dance.
But if this is a flaw, it is a minor one. Reading this book, one can see the potential of Barot’s art. And he has potential to create great poetry once he relies less on the poeticizing and more on the confidence his best poems can generate in the reader. One of the last poems in the collection, “Like a Fire That Consumes All Before It,” is a good example. The language, for the most part, is masterfully crafted and developed; the images are rich and deep; the logic is at once associative and at once sensuously sensually straightforward; the sound inherent in these lines reinforces the language, imagery, and logic. As he writes in part seven of the eighteen-part poem,
In particular the silver light the moon applies, the road and field an ambrotype framed in black velvet. The grasses have a collar’s rubbed silver shine. The fall is grievy, brisk. You want to make a case for this, this ministering, the wick of sight and your share of these things: to desire the honoure of the field. How the meadow is its layers of flowers, kinds of soils and kinds of grasses, the broken bottles sugared on your lit patch.
As the meadow’s reality is made of that which grows in it, so is the mind using sight to make its own reality. No different from the beautifully constructed land is the landscape that the mind can ultimately formulate with its gaze. And these poems are beautifully constructed works of art that should not be separated from all the pieces used to make up the whole.