Spring 2020, Volume 28

A Conspiracy of Sound: A review of Dora Malechís Flourish (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2020) and Rick Barotís The Galleons (Milkweed Editions, 2020)

       Review by Bill Neumire

What can words do? Are stories or shards our life? From different coasts, vastly different histories and situations, operating via different poetics, Dora Malech and Rick Barot address these concerns in their most recent books and in their oeuvres (each could easily sew their four collections together into one entire dialectic). To Barot, we confront this by expanding our sense of the self into a history, a community: we use story not because it is true, but because we need it. To Malech, it’s the raw pleasure of language’s sound in which we must take our last and only refuge.

Flourish, Dora Malech’s fourth collection (her second in two years), exemplifies her hallmark linguistic play as she anagrammatically metamorphoses words into new words and thus new meanings. Malech, who is also the author of Stet (Princeton University Press, 2018), Say So (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011), and Shore Ordered Ocean (Waywiser Press, 2009), pushes toward new ground in Flourish where the central question of her fractally word-gaming style comes into clarity: can language mean much of anything? Can it be an act? Can words be transcendent, revelatory, or are they, in the end, hollow amusements leading us nowhere? Ruth Lilly fellow and co-founder of the Iowa Youth Writing Project, Malech centers her book on this word flourish, and each section, beginning with an epigraph that employs the word distinctively, complicates and deepens the possible meanings of the eponymous character. So what does it mean? As a verb, to grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as a result of a particularly favorable environment; to develop rapidly and successfully, working at the height of one’s career; or to wave around to attract the attention of others. As a noun, a bold or extravagant gesture, an elaborate or rhetorical literary expression, or an ornate musical passage. Malech’s work is, not surprisingly, all of these at once.

Twain’s old acorn, “it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning” looms large as we constantly track minute word changes, such as the massive implications in switching the “m” and “n” in “We were warmed as we were warned” (26), a dooming whisper of global warming ending us all. All along the poet is truly advocating a praxis to “[b]egin in //a conspiracy of sound” (36), perhaps the most wholly and holy advice a poet can proffer; however, even as she folds phrase into phrase and word becomes sound becomes new word, this play is full of doubt that all of this “alphabetic adoration” is trivial, as she laments, “my relevant flash cards have fallen to flickers of trivia, / orphans referents rendered arcana—” (41). It’s a conflicted experience reading a collection so full of the pleasure of playing with words yet so steeped in an understanding of their limitations. It would be inaccurate to call any of these malapropisms or catachresis, and Stet more specifically burrowed into the anagram, but it’s in the “accident” of churning these letters that the poet seeks out moments of surprise revelation like “I’ll have another one slurs to I’ll have an urn” (55). Moreover, her sound-thick poems complement this layering of ambiguity and meaning with felicitous line breaks. Take, for instance, this moment:

Jagged dagger
in her

fists (11).

For the poet to move the reader from visualizing that dagger “in her” (a wound, a suffering) to the opposite “in her fist” (a weapon, a harming) in the sweep of that spatial break is a mark of sharp skill, a mark evident throughout this book. There are intentional eggcorns and puns a-swim in accumulation, and her obsession with slight discernments is dizzying to the point that she feels the need to assure herself and her reader:

Never fear. I know the difference between
arteries and ardor, arbor and treed,
my bower and a weak-kneed need, a harbor
where one might moor tonight and aport worth
the oars’ effort to come ashore for, a bit
part and the servant’s gravid apple (62).

Flourish is at times a game of allusions and referents—as in this quirky little moment: “Larva? Oh, let’s say imago (like / The night is Jung)” (25)--but also always a play on Herclitus’ you can’t stand in the same river twice maxim, as in “yr breaking // up. yr breaking up? Yr breaking up” (26). And there’s a sense of the temporal hovering:  “I snap the twig to try to trap / the springing and I relearn the same lesson. / You cannot make a keepsake of this season” (57). We must keep forgetting and rethinking our death, our life, it seems to say in its far-from-pedantic way:

book of matches that can’t refuse its end,
re-fuse itself, un-flare. Sure. Now forget
again. Here’s a new green vein, another
clutch to take, give, a handful of seconds (57).

It’s a hopeful speaker, one determined that

Misguided still means guided somewhere,
still means. Great Light,
I’ll trade you all my lofty thoughts
(never aloft) and bright

ideas (always unlit) and credos,
edicts, theorems, tired
metaphors of moths-to-flames
for my pair of wings on fire (40).

Most definitely, she sees even the accidental, the stumbled upon, as potential portals into new possibility, noting that when a poem “added an accident” it “saw the letter / to be good measure” (66). She engages with her reader on this abstract adventure, but it’s a process of trying to convince herself: “Here’s where I try to convince you / that we’ll always have each other’s words, / the holy nest in what’s said honestly” (24). It’s the earnest self-doubt that makes this a speaker so human the reader buys in. To what end? Her sublimely consequential games often comment on beauty and gender; specifically, a fight to be female, to be “There, because I fight when caught, I’m sought / for sport” (33) and to have “a beauty born as byproduct of need” (33). But there’s also a more lighthearted sensuality present, and “flourish” here brings fire to the potential deadness of language for language’s sake; it brings possibility, passion, chaos, emotion and life. Language, meanwhile, “reveals itself in us as too close to the furthest / thing from what we think we want our want to be” (45). It’s also clearly a collection of a poet who is flourishing at the height of her power, a poet who has begun addressing her own poetic career in reflecting on a gendered history:

Among my mentors (men) one told me
I was just trying to crack myself up in my poems,
or cheer myself up, if I might aspire
to more than a bit part in the tragedy (59).

A speaker who confesses, “all I want / is some part of me to be useful, or / beautiful, or both” (84), Malech’s word morphs differ in sound and in consequences: “It was always the difference between / felt up and touched up” (52). And she seems to reference her own previous books, such as Shore Ordered Ocean, when the speaker says, “We say lifelong to mean always / but both shift like shorelines” (76). Flourish even includes a poem with the speaker riffing on a that’s what she said joke. However, Malech has said that poetry is for answering the big questions, and the poet frequently touches on a motif of impermanence as “darkening things still stretch toward what is / bright” (70). Here is a bright, energetic voice, and she often spins this question of our ephemerality—what bigger question is there?—positive as in “what luck it is // to vanish” (70), and in the end, her final note rings, “what selling and what celebrating / our procession promises” (71). ‘Flourish,’ the title poem, is also the last poem of the book, and it ends, “Celebrate // the act / we make of the temporary fact of us.” Fittingly, this poet of such energy and verve and play ends with a deeply humanistic invitation, not to look at words as a magic spell that must act to matter, but rather to revel in them as symptoms of what’s within us, a heart we must celebrate even as we seek to say what it is. It’s a poetics hopeful that sound, if allowed to detach and transcend the signifier-signified relationship, can transcend meaning and rise into flame; after all, “a small fire is still fire. / No telling what it can consume” (43). It insists that language can still be our best probe into what we’re made of.

This is not to say that this is not a book of narrative (it is far more so than Stet), as is clear in poems like ‘Neighborhood Watch’ where the speaker considers her gruff, silent neighbor whose sump pump coughs all night, whose name she doesn’t remember; and then she sympathetically imagines him a biblical hero, her whole block drowning in a flood they can’t see:

and he’s the only one bailing, not standoffish
as he seems, but just immersed

in the thankless necessary work, only emerging on occasion
to take the air and remind himself that we’re worth saving,
though he’s the only one who seems to see the sea (78).

What is a poet’s thankless, necessary work? Malech deftly weaves these concerns--sound, language, perception, misperception, perspective--into historical lenses telling us that “bloody lullabies soothe the centuries” (23). The poems aim at what is inside us, at the ways we lie to ourselves:

mothers hurling rock-a-byes: my son died
a hero. In an unspecified inside,
sanctum sanctorum, a kettle cries

for order or gives voice to its dissent,
rails against the status quo or against
chaos, depending on who’s left (23).

At times, she seeks control in the chaos of language, insisting, “I am the captain of this /
caption” (59) but then admitting she “can’t see without [her] mirrors” (66). She implores us to understand that just as Williams insisted no ideas but in things, her

mispercept

leapt to reach

above the truth
and teach mistake

as precept, no

origins
except accept (69).

And thus her equation is more like no perceptions but in misperceptions, no arrivals but via wrong turns and detours. Perhaps the essential difference between poetry and prose is that poetry prioritizes sound; Malech’s poems in Flourish are a prime example of this. There is an exploration of language here that would not be as possible in anything we’d call prose; a literal analysis in the sense of breaking down and into small parts to reach large conclusions. On this journey the poet reaches out not to wrongheaded old mentors, but to the reader, as she does her “best dancing with strangers” (13) and by the end, none of us are strangers anymore.

____________

Whereas the image has dominated much of contemporary American poetry at least since Pound’s petals, Rick Barot builds poems with brief vignettes; his compressed, poignant stories and histories work like images because they function as a tonal ambiance, as squares in a patchwork quilt. The poems in each of Barot’s four collections complicate and expand each other: the speaker’s personal memories and experience quickly ripple out to become historical, global, and political observations. Barot himself has said that the “self is an unsustainable circumference, and the best art (...) comes out of that instability.” Unstable because the boundaries bleed, because the I progressively realizes itself as part of a larger, older we in a manner that makes it difficult to ever turn back. This cultivated instability is most evident in the speaker’s familial poems that begin with a personal memory but quickly accrue into a palimpsest that branches out into history. In his last collection, Chord, for example, we get this moment:

I think about the Spanish friar who saw one
of my grandmothers, two hundred years
removed, and fucked her
(...)
fucking was one way of having
a foreign policy (5).

The poem begins in the speaker’s mind, but the emotional memory of a grandmother raped by a friar becomes the more political realization that “fucking was a kind of foreign policy.” It transforms the gut-clenching impact of “fucking” in the first iteration into a more jaded understanding of rape in the context of a larger world, a larger history.

The Galleons, Rick Barot’s fourth poetry collection, feels like a natural extension of his first three--The Darker Fall; Want; and Chord. The Spanish galleons are the ideal vehicle (pun intended) to express Barot’s continuing obsession with the fusion of the personal and historical, of shard and story. Barot, who was born in the Philippines and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, reminds us that “[w]e live in paradox and prosper” (16). Dedicated to his parents (each of his books is dedicated to family), this collection moves back and forth from the disasters of colonialism and its aftermath to Barot’s own familial story and their Filipino-American odyssey. Barot’s speaker is irritated, doubtful, confessing that he is disappointed by the poetry of image:

The authority
I wanted dissolved always into restlessness,

into a constant gathering of images whose aggregate
seemed like things that had come to settle

inside a glove compartment (8).

This nexus of personal and historical, of the galleons and Barot’s immigrant lineage, is often formed in his stories about his grandmother: “Here is a ship, an ocean. / Here is a figure, her story a few words in the blue void” (4). Barot gives attention and story and immortality to this once so overlooked person. The central title poem is actually an 8-page listing of departure and destination points of several galleons between 1564 and 1815, beginning with “Santiago, 1564 / San Juan 1564” and ending with “Fidelidad, 1814 / Victoria, 1815.” It is more a statement than a poem, but it operates as an engine moving the other poems from a dark center. The poet, a professor and director of Rainier Writing Workshop, has a scholar and theorist’s mind at work, thinking at one moment of postmodernism, and at another, “research is mourning” (10). This history of European erasures of non-Europeans, a history symbolized by the 10-poem series of galleon poems, revives an emotional connection to the past; after all, “You don’t cry / over a thing in a museum, knowing what’s there // is already dead” (21).This is a constant peeling back of layers of history: “The falling that takes place / in a place where there is no ground” (46). Barot intensifies this confluence of history and the personal when he makes the galleons take on character and personhood:

The galleons, on certain
other days, want to go back to the forests

they came from, to reel the blood-soaked narrative
back to the stands of pines and oaks

that will become their keels and decking,
hulls and masts (54).

We make meaning through comparison and everywhere the speaker looks, history is reflected, seeing “the strollers that are like galleons” that are “being pushed by women whose names once graced / the actual galleons” (26-27). In the last lines of the book, Barot gives us an ars poetica in contradiction as he says:

Someone peels at a corner
of wallpaper and sees more wallpaper beneath--

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 (68-69).

Barot is a natural raconteur, a poet who listens to others’ stories (even on the plane). He relishes in the story of a soldier’s long-haul trucking journey and of a fellow plane passenger’s heart bypass surgery, and the book even begins with the quizzical statement that “[t]he poetry of earth is a ninety-year-old woman / in front of a slot machine in a casino in California” (1). He has a perceptive sense of narrative’s function as rhythm, as incantation, as he’s said in interview:

the woe-is-me of signifiers will never really equal signifieds complaint is one about language as communication, as pointing. But a poet’s work can be different, can be to use words as sounds, as rhythms, as incantations. It can also work for a storyteller who leans not necessarily toward imagistic writing, writing that points at a picture, but rather toward these narrative bits, writing that creates an experience through a string of language instead depending on isolated words to point to something already in the world, a sort of ambience of narrative sound (the way a kid might not know at all what’s happening in a story but feels comforted by its rhythm).

Perhaps the most central reflection of the book is Barot’s “notion” on stories:

I have this notion that if you live long enough,
there are three or four great stories that you will have in your life.

A story of a journey or transformation.
A story of love, which will likely mean the loss of love, a story

of loss. And a story of spiritual illumination,
which, for many, will probably be the moment of death itself,

the story untellable, its beginning and middle
and end collapsing with its teller into a disappearing conclusion.

I have believed long enough in my notion
to know that it is a romantic notion, that it erodes each time

I realize that the shard and not the whole
comprises a life, the image and not the narrative (19).

And so narrative poems are an artifice, a solace, a scaffolding to hold up the shards, a way of repairing doubt and restlessness, a doubt not unlike Malech’s, though appearing from a stylistically different angle. It’s a heartbreakingly tender stance, a vulnerable speaker who admits he’s doing what he can with pieces. Barot’s “I” has steadily expanded over the course of his four books as he interrogates imperialism, colonialism, and the thrownness within which each of us works. His particular story is reflected in lines like “[i]n the Philippines, growing up among // servants, I loved the servants the same way / I loved my parents, with helplessness and tyranny” (6). This personal history deepens his research and reflections into imagination and narrative that extends well beyond his own story, as he thinks of English estates

where the servants had to face the wall
whenever anyone of importance was near,

where workers had to cut the lawns with scissors
by candlelight at night, to save the master

the trouble of seeing and hearing all that effort.
What the mind does with this kind of information

is probably the knot within the post-
in what we call post-modernism, knowing all we know (5).

It’s an approach that implicates him in any form of blame that might be cast, but he doesn’t seem to be in the business of assigning blame; rather, he reveals a history of the world that is so full of layers of blame that no one is exonerated. His unsettled wrestling with a troubling history and with a troubling unrest with narrative, ironically, brings him a species of peace, as he admits, “Here is the recklessness / I have wanted. Here is the composure I have earned” (35); a peace that urges him to expand: “Surely there will always be new language // to tell you who I am, imagination rousing / out of idleness into urgency, reaching now toward you” (47). Barot’s words are like a drought that unfloods and reveals forgotten architecture, that returns the past to our sense of the present, though it was never missing. This mode allows him to cast new vision, as when, in ‘Wright Park,’ he sees police officers handcuffing a young gay man in the park while a nearby old man speculates, “It’s just one faggot on a bicycle (...) Why so many cops?.” We then move to the speaker’s incantatory re-vision:

I know the mind’s violence, and what I see

is (...) [the old man’s] cane thin and white

as a toothpick, not stick enough
to beat back the faggots riding into the park

on their bicycles, the faggots in the flower beds,
the faggots in the trees and bushes,

the blue cops who are also faggots,
the faggots splashing into the pond of ducks

and carp, the faggots on the swings,
the faggots, the faggots everywhere, the faggots (52).

It’s a revision that reclaims a stolen and abused sense of humanity, that remakes the “faggots” as beautifully natural and universal. It’s a remarkable example of the kind of healing Barot’s expanding “I” can do.

It would be tempting to write of this speaker as of a historian or documentarian, one who, even in telling the story of his own family, is removed, but this speaker, this vision, is immediate and intimate, one who thinks “of [him]self as someone with a regulated / mind” (57). He is often affected by the particular: “I stop because a kind of meadow    has been grown on the side // [o]f a building    like a tallness of heart” (59). He is a believer in expertise, and thus an interrogator of what a poet or storyteller can offer, noting his belief in the knowledge of the choreographer and the naturalist. But what about the poet? What type of knowledge does a poet convey? Can it be believed? Perhaps they can be merely and profoundly “like a mirror, its silver blood” (61).

This take on history and the present, the world and the family, imperialism and its endless echoes, this sea of galleons stealing and weeping and carrying, is a collection that wants to know what, if anything, words can do. Can they make of shards a story? Of bloody and criminal histories a continuous lullaby? It is a more somber style and content than Malech’s to be sure, a wielding of narrative (and admission of its falseness) as opposed to the sound unit of the word, or even the letter—Malech answers this question of efficacy by rejecting incantation in the literal sense in favor of reveling in the iteration itself, in what it can do for us in the moment of creation/perception,  while Barot leans more toward the possibility that we were born wanting (needing?)story—not the plot and characters and conflicts—but the arcing, rhythmic sound of it, the history of beginning and middle and end. The two approaches represent the range of an American poetry landscape that is as teeming with range and passion for language as it’s ever been.

 

 

About Dora Malech

Dora Malech is assistant professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of three books of poetry. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, the Best American Poetry, and numerous other publications. She lives in Baltimore.

  • Dona Malech's Flourish: published by Carnegie Mellon University Press; 1 edition (February 18, 2020)
  • ISBN-10: 088748655X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0887486555



About Rick Barot

Rick Barot was born in the Philippines and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has published three previous volumes of poetry: The Darker Fall; Want; which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and won the 2009 GrubStreet Book Prize; and Chord. Chord received the UNT Rilke Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, and the Publishing Triangleís Thom Gunn Award. It was also a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Poetry, the New Republic, Tin House, the Kenyon Review, and the New Yorker. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Artist Trust of Washington, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and Stanford University. He is the poetry editor for the New England Review. He lives in Tacoma, Washington, and directs The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University.