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A Review of Quan Barry's "Water Puppets"

On The Seawall, Poet's RecommendFall 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,
   these fabulous aliens.

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 jungle
   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
   is 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 seven pages:

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:
twenty thousand father sand sons

equals a rookery: what comes down:
the black 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"

   Once I 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

   toward gravity.

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.


Purchase "Water Puppets" here