On The Seawall, Poet's Recommend, Fall 2012
A Review of Quan Barry's Water Puppets
Quan Barry's second collection of poems, Water Puppets, fixes
its gaze on the various ways in which those with power abuse those without in beautifully and fully-controlled verses of constantly
evolving syntax, structure, and scope. Refusing to settle into any particular mode, structure, or setting, Barry creates an
environment that persistently shifts beneath the reader's feet, which keeps us on our toes in a way akin to the worlds and
characters in the poems themselves.
In the opening poem, "lion,"
for example, the dynamic between a male and his harem is the unnamed speaker's initial focus: "In the Serengeti sun,
the male's harem / like solar system... / ...throughout evolution the cat's barbed penis / nicking his breached mate as he
dismounts." "lion" takes a radical turn, however, when the male's face is described as "crucified"
and we discover that he and his pride are caged by the American forces interrogating our speaker:
...Unhooded and naked
we are pushed into their presence
and for a shining moment the animals study us,
Even though "lion" utilizes fairly simple,
enjambed tercets, this sudden shift is easy to miss. To miss this shift is to miss the deeper meaning of the poem: that our
tendency to abuse our power over others is scribed into our DNA, is simply part of who and what we are.
The fourth poem,
"reportage," is more complicated on the surface, opening:
This is the journalist's mission from the Old French
for to carry back somewhere deep in the Congolese
over the blond bridge sewn from sticks the green hills
with the twisting stalks
of their serrated grasses each
fibrous blade pointillistic murderous historical quotidian
These densely-packed quintets cycle through repeated symbols and images sans punctuation
in order to tell the story of a journalist who returns to Rwanda ten years after the genocide. Hoping to report on a renewed
and enlightened society, the reporter instead finds that
...the rebels and the army
buy cold drinks in the same village though each in turn
outfitted for the destroying of the other
this isn't a story of hope but rather of dormancy
Such brutality, it seems, is doomed to repeat itself, Barry argues; such slaughter
is always just beneath the surface. Barry doesn't bang the reader over the head with this message in this five page poem;
rather, she implies it with her use of repetition and the lack of punctuation.
Similarly, "meditations," a sixteen page poem at the center of the collection, takes us from the incarceration
of Nelson Mandela to the massacre of Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese government to "the existence of WMDs"
and beyond in tercets that leap from subject to subject with little to no indication. Once again, form meets function; the
reader has to hold on for dear life much like the speaker, travelling this vast landscape of manipulation and cruelty.
Later, a sequence of six prose poems all titled "poem" walk us through everyday
life in postwar Vietnam where stillborn babies deformed by napalm are preserved in jars and the faces of the dead are "everywhere...in
the polished stone" walls of a museum. "Know," declares Barry, "that the United States considered using
nuclear weapons against these people. Close your eyes. Imagine the guilt-free life you might live someday, then remember why
you don't deserve it." In the next poem, "history," Barry meditates on the nature of pornography in which men
almost always dominate women in single-line stanzas that extended in ecstatic and unpunctuated near-prose lines across its
how did I end up here what was I searching alabaster
skin like a dinner plate
a her 24/7 lover come rain or come shine
literally some kind of oil derrick
all stainless steel and mechanization
cold struts and gleaming www
Luckily, embedded within these difficult
verses are poems of less complex design. There's the second poem of the collection, "learning the tones," which
meditates on the six "diacritical marks used on certain vowels" of Vietnamese in six sections of eight couplets
each. "lament," similarly, describes a city built on a fault that sacrifices a member of its citizenry each time
an earthquake strikes in a single, ten-line stanza. "different location, same outcome" uses colons to link each
image/idea to the next:
everywhere an army:
father sand sons
equals a rookery: what comes down:
wing with its fused bone:.
It also helps that these poems are so
beautifully written. No matter their complexity, Barry rewards the reader with her masterful use of metaphor, image, and diction.
In "arsenal," for example, the Antarctic Peninsula becomes "the shattered kneecap / at the bottom of the world."
In "ode" she personifies "the shorn [that] moon picks its blue path / across the night valley." Any poet
would wish they'd written the following lines in "Sunday Essay": "Someone's soul is pooling out of their body
though the staff / is attempting to ram it back in", "The body is self-programmed to die.", "the blond
moon wears its hair shirt of light." And who could forget this description in "If only I had been able to form the
idea of a substance that is spiritual"
saw a pod of sperm whales sleeping
in the long night
of the sea, their bodies
vertical like a forest, tails to the surface,
the massive trove
of their heads
like stopped pendulums trained down straight
No doubt, the poems of Quan
Barry's Water Puppets challenge the reader to adapt to Barry's almost violent shifts in structure, style, and subject
matter from poem to poem, and, often, line to line. Readers must also accept that these poems are serious ones, poems that
have something to say about or world and our country that they may or may not agree with. America isn't exactly portrayed
as the land of the beautiful and free. Individuals are not exonerated for their actions. These poems place the reader's face
in front of Barry's various mirrors and demand they accept what we find there or leave.