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From Catalog to Controversy: Review of Rick Barot’s The Galleons

Amie Whittemore

Cover of Rick Barot’s The Galleons

Reviewed: The Galleons by Rick Barot (Milkweed Editions, 2020)

“The far points now near, more present than the present,” Rick Barot writes in the opening poem (“The Grasshopper and The Cricket”) of The Galleons, his fourth collection, ushering readers into a richly peopled and textured collection guided by a truly curious and insightful mind: what do history’s galleons deliver to us? And what do we make of these all too often problematic gifts?

There are ten galleons in Barot’s collection, each one a different ship, delivering its difficult, complex, sometimes harrowing, sometimes lovely, treasure. In “The Galleons I,” the speaker contemplates the intersection of the personal and the political explicitly:

          her story is a part of something larger, it is a part
          of history. No, her story is an illumination

          of history, a matchstick in the black seam of time.
          Or, no, her story is separate

          from the whole, as distinct as each person is distinct
          from the stream of people that led

          to the one and leads past the one. Or, her story
          is surrounded by history, the ambient spaciousness

Barot’s speaker goes on, rethinking and restructuring the human relationship to history through metaphor (later history is “a net,” then “the galleon” on which the “she” in this poem travels the Pacific). Through these transformations, Barot attempts completeness, attempts to contain the complexity that perpetually lies outside the full grasp of language.

As the speaker in “The Flea” confesses, Barot has “a grudging faith // in the particular,” and each poem rich in historical and contemporary detail. These poems are not so much poems of witness, but participation, always engaged with the thing at hand—a long lost galleon, a grandmother’s hands—and the background, the web of culture in which the thing is perpetually and complexly ensnared. Take, for instance, “Still Life with Helicopters,” which opens with the propagation of rudimentary helicopters across the world, “children in China played with bamboo toys // whose propellers, thin and light as dragonfly / wings, were set on a sharpened stick and spun,” before manufactured on a mass scale: “there are as many / different kinds of helicopters now as there are // uses for them.” Then the poem leaps from catalog to controversy as the speaker contemplates the helicopter looming over a protest in Oakland: “protestors swarm onto / the 580 Freeway and shut it down, protesting // the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson, Missouri.” Barot then disrupts the description of the protest by returning his focus to what’s near at hand: “The police and the news helicopters are / what I hear as I sit at the desk, the desk and its // world of things: the black notebook, the pencils.”  This mimetic disruption is powerful as it breaks the spell of the poem, the spell of writing the poem: we cannot get so lost in the sensuality of particular facts and figures without losing sight of the often oppressive systemic, abstract webs that contain them. Barot’s ability to shift focus swiftly in order to address the simultaneity of existence with such grace is part of the pleasure of reading this book—we get to be everywhere, all at once, with him as our guide.  

One of the many things I love about this collection is that while it contemplates past and present traumas and inequities, Barot is also interested in the possibility of the soul’s enrichment through cultural transactions as well. In “Virginia Woolf’s Walking Stick,” the speaker weeps on seeing the stick she used when walking to her death, recalls how her work reached him in college “despite the differences that should have made the affinity // impossible—the years between us, gender and class / and race. But there we were.” This collection situates Barot as a champion of the human soul, for these poems confront the worst in us while still tapping into human gentleness, creativity, and verve. This balance is most aptly struck in the poems that feature his grandmother, who serves as a “particular” whose story limns a broader history. Perhaps most touching is “The Galleons 5,” in which the speaker interviews the grandmother in a series of couplets: the first line of each one being in the grandmother’s voice, the second line in the grandson’s. This duet succeeds in the task of creating a truly polyphonic poem without losing narrative clarity: “what we know most deeply…we guard best,” Barot writes.

Near the end of the collection, the speaker in “Broke Mirror Against Tree Trunk” laments: “Longer than I can remember, I have prayed to the patron saint / of eyesight for a new way, a new accuracy.” This is every poet’s prayer, and I think it’s been answered in Barot’s case. Each poem offers its insights, its particulars, its questions so wonderfully, I leave the book overwhelmed and renewed: the world’s muchness, which can so often feel unbearable, is also key to its splendor. To see even part of it with Barot’s acuity is a gift.

Amie Whittemore standing by a pond in the woods

Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press). Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and her poems and prose have appeared in The Gettysburg ReviewNashville ReviewSmartish PacePleiades, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.