I’ve always secretly resented men who manage to keep their faces and bodies perfectly groomed. Needing to believe their obsessive cleanliness results from internalized homophobia, I mock them behind their backs for trying to overcompensate for the way they think straight people see them. As dirty creatures. Our filthy bodies determined to infect everyone in sight.
I’ll admit that like a lot of gay men, I’ve always had a flair for overstatement. At the same time, I do believe what I’m saying. To an extent. Maybe my discomfort explains my genuine disdain for Paul Monette’s prose: his sentences always fussy, preening, ostensibly never a word out of place. His perfect standard syntax. Edmund Write hasn’t fared that much better with me. Much for the same reason. (Except for The Farewell Symphony. Perhaps the title alone justified why his flawlessly edited prose didn’t irritate. He had to hit every note just right.)
This brings us to the poems of Rick Barot, most specifically the ones in Want. I genuinely can’t figure out if Barot’s manic fastidiousness in choosing the perfect detail, simile, personification, etc. etc. reveals a genuine confidence. Or a serious insecurity, rending his project more flawed than some people seem to think.
Whenever I write a review for public consumption, I choose one that either a.) deserves praise or b.) inspires a tortured ambivalence. One that I’m trying to make sense of, that haunts me, and that sometimes subtracts a few hours from a beauty sleep which never proves effective. Want is one of those books. If I wasn’t seriously engaged, I wouldn’t write about it. Unlike William Logan, a hack of a critic, I have no desire to write about poetry anyone could malign in attempt to make my own mediocre verse look a little better in my own eyes.
(I could never afford space here to doodle about Gregg Shapiro’s Protection or Richard Tayson’s The World Underneath. I don’t find the former as upsetting as the latter. Protection seems to be the work of a poet very young in his career who hasn’t realized that some tropes have just been to death. The latter already released a book, and has no excuse for wringing and wringing pathos from incest narratives, dull resolutions to victim narratives, etc etc. Shame on you, Mr. Tayson!)
The title “Want” even confounds me. The one word, monosyllabic title almost too cautiously guards itself from criticism. On one level, it feels perfectly right for the thematic interests of the book. On another, it doesn’t leave us anything to work with: it shuts us out, saying I’ve taken care of everything. Just sit back.
I would like to emphasize that this line of inquiry is not in any way meant to discredit the obvious virtues of the book. It’s revealing that I haven’t heard anyone said at all critical of Barot’s poems. And I can understand why: everything is in place, working pretty much in concert with everything else. And there’s so much attention to the diction, line and the look of the poem.
A year ago, I met the amazing poet-critics Judith Kitchen and Stan Rubin at a conference. Their reviews have impacted me so much as of late. Not as much as New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, my favorite writer of any genre. Period. There is no better critic than Kael. You can imagine my excitement in getting to talk to them. The first poet she named was Rick Barot, and had nothing but great things to say about his poems.
I can’t deny it: I was confused. Why his name was the first one that came to mind out of all poets out there in this world.
Maybe this is the fundamental question for me: I find that fastidiousness and reasonableness to be synonyms. Perhaps I ultimately find his project to be too reasonable, too centered to be anything more than a superior, well-crafted project.
Let’s look at why I may think this. I have no doubt that Barot would be a poet who takes a substantial amount of time assembling his book. As one should. But again, this reasonableness seems too (shall I dare say it?) reasonable. It feels too right that with a book entitled Want, the first poem would be named Echo. And written in couplets, as a poem about Echo and Narcissus I suppose, should do. It’s a tight ghazal.
Here’s the first five couplets:
And what part of his reflection will tell me who I am,
that I am standing a little away, wanting in on his story?
Days I am cup, slice, gray, need, therapy. The headache
of the repetition of his voice, telling himself some story.
I am in the city looking for him, forcibly drawn to
the square glass eyes. A light is on in the hundredth story.
Street black as eel, the wavering look of him inside
its puddle. I play lamp-post to the dark of this story.
The one who sets fire to half the state while setting fire
to letters in the forest. Let her be part of this story.
Everything is here that should be here, and in pleasant, unobtrusive supply. The repetition of the word “story”. Which never greedily calls attention to itself. The professional variance in kinds of sentences. We can check them off: the imperative, rhetorical question, clear, direct statement. Strong, and again well-measured injections of wit. No one need to look further than the first line in the second stanza to see a wonderful example of that. I can go on: well- chosen turns of phrase (“play lamp post,” etc.) There’s one or two forced ones such as “street black as eel.” But who’s perfect?
In this Echo, the pleasures are undeniably pleasures. Even if they aren’t surprising.
Barot seems most invested in the longer”ish” poem comprised of enumerated sections. It wouldn’t be fair not to look at one of those. “Theories of the Visible” may be the most emblematic of these works. Created out of two cross-cutting narratives, you can’t deny the precise technique in his transitions. The first story focuses on what the title says, the theories of the visible, various historic perspectives, including famous ideas from the Greeks, Renaissance, so forth. The second revolves around the narrator and presumably his lover’s relationship between themselves as well as other wants. Like gazing at boy “rollerblading naked in the house” across the street. Like the anticipation of “the blue current/ that would extend from where I was to where I would be” as the narrator deals with his lover’s “fever.” Everything works in the poem and more than well: the enjambed sections that allow for an unforced continuity;, the descriptions within the twelve-lined sections. Even the tidy, fitting closure of the poem, which nicely “echoes” the book’s title. Take a look:
his fever, we saw a crow slowly take apart
a greasy paper bag on the grass, holding
down the bag with a foot as it ate each ripped
dirty piece. What is it to be here but to want?
The poem leaves an impression. In fact, a very good one. The book is like the boyfriend you know your parents would want you marry, especially after the last one: a messy, yet intriguing disaster. Or the one who justifiably looked down on you all. Or the one who was super-ambitious yet never consistent. That was the one you liked best.
When he agrees to meet your parents, he puts on his Sunday best. Even though it isn’t Sunday. He wears the cologne your mother wishes you had.
Everything about him seems to be perfect. Your parents cheer.
You know they’re right about him. In a way. Which makes you a bit uncomfortable. Just a bit. But still.