Saturday Poetry Pick: The Galleons

book cover

The Galleons, by Rick Barot. Milkweed Editions, 2020.

Balancing narrative, image, and rhetoric, The Galleons pulls the reader in from the very first couplet, in “The Grasshopper and the Cricket”:

The poetry of earth is a ninety-year-old woman
in front of a slot machine in a casino in California.

How can I not keep reading? Barot fills in additional details, “her sharp red lipstick / in two lines across her mouth, put there // by her daughter” and “her wheelchair, painted blue // like a boy’s bicycle.” There is a comparison with Gertrude Stein, and then the reader’s lens moves to the food court, where the speaker is “reading a magazine / article about the languages the world is losing.” And while the grandmother “is playing the one-cent slots, // and her money will go far into the afternoon,” the speaker turns to Keats’s “sonnet about / the grasshopper and the cricket, ceasing never.”

The Galleons is a complex collection, interrogating the movement of people and goods, the experiences of immigration and the effects of colonialism. A series of ten poems, each called “The Galleons”, is spaced throughout the book, much like ships crossing the ocean, but beyond the title, each is a unique exploration of the physical, historical, or metaphorical galleon. For a deeper understanding, I recommend reading What the Lyric Means to Me: A Conversation with Rick Barot and watching the Seattle Arts and Lectures Q & A session with Barot and Jane Wong.

The Galleons is also a kind of love poem to Barot’s grandmother, who appears throughout the book in various journeys. “The Galleons 5” is a poem in two voices. The grandmother’s recorded reminiscences are interposed with the speaker’s interior thoughts, so that the reader can experience the interview in real time, the competing internal and external voices, or read the voices as two separate poems.

As a reader and as a writer, I’m fascinated by the way Barot pulls together, for example, in “Cascades 501,” an overheard story of heart surgery and the view from the train window of “Punky little woods,” “The bogs that must have been left / by retreating glaciers” (which expands the poem into prehistory), “the summer backyard with the orange soccer ball,” and “the pickup truck / parked askew in the back lot,” noting “Each thing looks new / even when it is old and broken down.” Then the poem moves again, but I’m not going to spoil the ending.

One of my favorite examples of the movement in the book is in “The Girl Carrying a Ladder,” which braid musings about a luxury-brand punching bag with a story about a girl carrying a ladder to school, with a discussion of camouflage and school kids and apples and, underneath it all, the recurring theme of desire and sacrifice, questioning how those scales might be tipped.

Another favorite example is “The Blink Reflex.” The poem begins by talking about the “three or four great stories that you will have in your life,” and then transitions into a discussion of how memory changes a story “its beginning and middle / and end collapsing with its teller into a disappearing conclusion.” The speaker recalls one such story that, with age, is now symbolized by the image of “the moist towelette packet we were given with our meal, / the wonder and absurdity of it.” Then the poem moves swiftly to a scene of two young lovers sitting in a tree, and then the story of a friend calling another friend for advice after a dog was struck by a car. We now have layers of stories. The poem then returns to the consider what the lover from long ago might be doing and finds “Like dozens of old keys // in a drawer, so many of the wrong people with the right name” and their stories, until learning that the man he was searching for had “transferred to / another college, gone to film school, and become a producer // of TV documentaries.” The poem ends with a list of the man’s films. Stories. And those stories bring us back to the poem’s argument at the beginning, but deftly, subtly, letting the reader make the connection.

Through all these shifts, the speaker is steady–guiding the reader through each transition. These poems are the sound of thinking, and that steadiness enables them to make these moves, and makes the moves themselves even more powerful.

I haven’t talked about art and museums, which are important here. I haven’t talked about endings, although Barot discusses them in the interview. I haven’t talked about “The Flea” or “Virginia Woolf’s Walking Stick” or “The Marrow.” I recommend making their acquaintance, and I have very much enjoyed spending this time with them.