JULY 21, 2015
IN THE LITERARY PROFESSION, the designation “mid-career” is open to interpretation. It’s not necessarily measured by a writer’s age, but by a writer’s publications and/or the span of writer’s participation in the field — at least one to two decades of professional life. For poets, the third book usually covers that territory, though for the more prolific one, it’s the fourth that signals entry into what is known vaguely as “mid-career.” The expectation is that four published poetry books provides enough material to establish a reputation, a trajectory, and a sense of a poet’s vision. To test that theory, I’ve decided to write a retrospective of the bodies of work by three poets whose fourth books appear in 2015: Quan Barry, author of Loose Strife, Kyle Dargan, author of Honest Engine, and Ada Limón, author of Bright Dead Things. These are poets whose literary careers I’ve been following over the years and whose work continues to engage me, not only because these are three voices from distinct ethnic communities, but because I’ve always appreciated the purpose and drive of their artistry.
Quan Barry’s poetry outlines a sustained meditation on violence, though she has cultivated quite an expansive territory by locating violence not only in the timelines of personal and world history, but also in representation, in literature and film. This broad spectrum, these multitudinous pressure points, make a dire statement about the ubiquitous nature of damage, pain, and trauma, and how they shape human imagination and expression.
Asylum (2001) takes on the precarious state of safety for the exile, the political refugee, and other violated bodies or bodies in distress, such as the 7-year-old child (in the poem “lullaby”), a victim of molestation who pens a letter to her abuser, beginning with the statement: “I know what your body holds for me — shame, oil and shame.” That the subjugated subject writes her own narrative — and speaks out — is an act of empowerment. Some might even identify it as an act of healing. But Barry presents a more complicated and troubling journey for this speaker. Although her voice communicates strength and hints at conciliation, she includes a footnote in which she reveals the true undertone of her letter: “I hate you for what you are and what you did.” Suddenly her narrative expands into multiple planes of emotional language. And so what is her asylum? The letter? Or the rage that seethes beneath it? In any case, asylum is not resolution, only a shaky, temporary shelter.
Barry’s reflections on this unsettling state of being take the reader to a series of unexpected places, such as a kabuki performance in which the speaker is caught off guard by her willing surrender to fantasy and illusion, to the tale of St. Agatha whose martyrdom is nothing less than a grotesque show of loyalty to God, to Snow White’s bedchamber where the new bride comes to terms with her rescue from death-sleep only to awaken to the sleepless prison of marital obligations. The speakers, usually women, consider the bittersweet cost (and, ultimately, farce) of escape and freedom.
Asylum’s figurative poems underscore the harsh lessons imparted by what serves as connecting tissue — the war poems. The opening sequence “Child of the Enemy” offers a harrowing family history of the daughter of a black military soldier and a Vietnamese woman. Because the parents are absent, the child grows up reaching toward the history books and imagining the circumstances surrounding the lives of the two people whose fates collided during the Vietnam War. The narrative she constructs is informed by wartime imagery and testimony, by the small consolation of being called a survivor, by still feeling like a casualty, and by feeling that as a dark-skinned adoptee, she remains dislocated, even in her skin. The arresting moment in “Napalm,” in which the speaker compares herself to the military weapon, expresses the speaker’s existential crisis — she is the child of the enemy, but who is the enemy when her identity embodies opposing sides of the conflict?
It works both ways. Clear the forests to see your enemies
and your enemies see you clearly. Like all effective incendiaries
I won’t only bloom where I’m planted.
Barry’s intriguing second book Controvertibles (2004) operates from a single premise: how is one thing like another? Each poem’s title reads like an equation (“house fire as bildungsroman,” “mal amour as disciple,” “Rage Against the Machine as Plate Tectonics”) designed to challenge the poet, who mines these unexpected pairings with moods that run the gamut from intellectual to spiritual to comical. The conceit seems to be that icons, symbols, and language are not as locked into their meanings or definitions as people want to believe — everything is fluid, a state of existence that’s misunderstood as angst-instilling uncertainty.
Reading 49 of these poems is a daunting task, but worth it. The gems stand apart, like “purdah as polemic.” Though not an unexpected pairing at first, the purdah in question turns out to be the speaker’s dark skin, which, while visiting Muslim territory, becomes subject to suspicion and scrutiny — the speaker so like the women of that country and yet — as an English speaker and a Westerner not bound to the religious mandates — so unlike them. And when the speaker, beleaguered by this treatment, pronounces her disdain for “some worlds” in which a person’s literacy might be punishable by death, the poem expands to include another timeline in another oppressive culture: the Antebellum Period of the American South. Clever and, at times, a bit cheeky, Controvertibles exhausts its conceit rather early in the book.
Barry’s third book Water Puppets (2011) hinges on the poem “meditations,” which offers the following stanza:
There are places on the human body that will not heal
due to their constantly being in motion,
their flexing and such, the skin unable// to hold a scab.
Throughout Water Puppets — a reference to the Vietnamese art in which a large underwater rod supports the puppet to give the illusion of autonomous movement — bodies are in motion because they’re fleeing, hiding, or stirring. Something — a threat, a dilemma, an angst — is keeping them in motion, even while meditating. Such is the case for the speaker considering the six tones of her mother tongue in “learning the tones.” Language is a birthright, but the wound of displacement, of being torn away from one’s culture, is a wound that’s prodded each time the speaker encounters it: “Who would I be if I had stayed?” she ponders, and later, “even the sound of the word sad/ slides down my face.”
Though Vietnam as an emotional landscape continues to have the strongest pull in Water Puppets, Barry also visits South America and the Middle East, the peripatetic poet yet another body in motion as she considers the ruins caused by political and religious persecution, the cultures above ground as unstable as the fault lines below, and so, in “lament,” the poet’s cry: “believe me: it never stops.”
And indeed, it continues into book four. Loose Strife (in which half the poems bear the same two-word title) engages Greek mythology more aggressively than in her previous books as she considers how the tragedies of the world echo Greek dramas and archetypes such as this event, which she connects to the story of Agamemnon and Iphigenia: “Two days ago in India a man/ decapitated his daughter then stalked through the village// swinging her head like a lantern. He was angry/ at the way she lived her life.” The indictment against humanity is that over the course of its history it is simply performing the same plays. And although there’s a “small light burning at the bottom/ of the jar” (the flicker of hope in Pandora’s box), everyone’s still walking into “annihilating daylight.” There are “so many ways to be erased.”
The existential pulse is strong in the pages of Loose Strife because of the unrelenting evidence that human life (particularly female life) is collateral damage to humanity’s political machinations and cultural dogmata. Values that are designed for instruction are (mis)used for destruction. And all for what? The pessimist and the optimist can debate this to infinity. Barry expresses it best with the poem “variation,” in which she compares the disparate tones in the conclusions to Solaris: Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation ended on the cosmonaut’s triumphant arrival to the new planet, while in Stanisław Lem’s novel that same space traveler continued to question human relevance: “[Solaris] bore my weight without noticing me any more than it would a speck of dust.” Barry clearly attempts to steer her readers toward the more reflective stance, with a preference for the pessimistic view: “Sadly it is easier to become like matter than to become like light.”
An intriguing aesthetic choice in this book is Barry’s use of the self-referential. She gives herself permission to participate in the narrative, admitting, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, how obsessed she is with violence. She includes a few citations from previous book reviews (some unflattering), and offers glimpses into her creative process — “Let yourself remember,” she writes, “Let it be your way to the poem” — and her artistic doubts: “How many times can I appropriate a story that is not mine to tell?” Some of this initially comes across as unnecessary exposition, but turns out to be a declaration of a calling to follow a most disquieting muse, a sustained exploration of a moment of despair expressed in Aeschylus’ Oresteia: “Where will it end?/ Where will it sink to sleep and rest, this murderous hate, this Fury?” Loose Strife, which ultimately stitches together the dark history of humanity into a single volume of verse, is Barry’s most compelling response yet to that question: hate doesn’t end, hate doesn’t stop.
Kyle Dargan is a poet whose work navigates between the political and philosophical, and his poems are fueled frequently by a fearlessness in expressing curiosity, wonder, and critique. He questions his place in the various environments he inhabits, he questions the existence of those environments, their origins and purposes — all explorations in service to coming to terms with our culture’s ever-shifting tectonic plates.
His debut The Listening (2004) reads like a tribute to the communities that shaped his understanding of the world, and of the doors that open or will remain closed to a young black man in college. In the poem “Satin Touch,” for example, the speaker feels out of place in a black female hair salon, but his shared background with the women, despite the differences, eventually sets him at ease: “They know I’m a university kid — book in hand, twangless speech/ but slang enough to gain trust. [The hairdresser] says something about// my Indian hair. I think slave master and say nothing.” And when he pays for the service, “a carnal tension/ unhinges” at eye contact, reminding him of the gendered power dynamic that he had submitted to from the moment he entered the shop.
In another poem, “nap・i・ness,” the speaker’s hair being sculpted at a black barbershop is the reminder of difference and distance between his African roots and American indoctrination: “I learned someone has edited/ my text with different blood/ than it was fashioned in — / loosening pages like lye/ so the words wouldn’t twist or dreadlock.” He concludes: “I am an enigma — / living one history, combing another.”
The speaker’s advanced education becomes an important component of his identity particularly because in college he encountered those influential writers — Robert Hayden, Yusef Komunyakaa, Etheridge Knight, among them — who textured his view of the world, particularly as man. In “Halfway House,” the speaker finds himself sheltering his indigent father. When the favor grows into a burden, he reaches, like many of his literary mentors, for a spiritual passage in order to attain strength, perspective, and language: “As a nibs begins to threaten the dawn, I think// ‘remember, no water, fire this time’ — / the world re-members through fire this time.” The important presence of the literary community in his life is what inspires the speaker to end the book with a empowering declaration:
We are a poet
what the world grows
from what the world
In Bouquet of Flowers (2007), Dargan transforms everyday encounters into moments of education and clarity, as in “Edgar the Security Guard on Poetry.” Forced to complete his degree in order to earn his military rank, Edgar confesses his disinterest in poetry, so the well-meaning speaker recommends a title written by Vietnam veteran turned poet Bruce Weigl. Edgar’s response: “I’ll try this Song of Napalm. I knew fire,/ but it never sounded like music.” The intended lesson bounces back to teach the speaker. That the exchange becomes amplified to reach a political and emotional pitch is one illustration of Dargan’s various “boarding points” — this, in reference to the poem by that name that traces the speaker’s journey by bus, in which any offhand comment, any random image, can invite reflection and reveal poignancy.
At notable times, the “boarding points” manifest themselves as paternal figures, for better or for worse. Besides Edgar the security guard, there’s also George Carlin, Colin Powell (as guest speaker at a school assembly), a German stranger on a train, and even the stone memorial honoring Martin Luther King Jr. These men serve as surrogate, if sometimes serendipitous, guides for the speaker whose father has vanished from his path. Only the poem “The Father” invokes the absent parent, but there he remains formless — a “spirit,” a “silence.” Although Bouquet of Flowers also reaches for politically charged events such as George W. Bush’s ushering in another war with the Middle East and the devastating history of New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina, these poems tinged with personal hues are the ones that have lasting resonance.
Logorrhea Dementia (2010) — subtitled A Self-Diagnosis — is framed by poems that explain further the context of this affliction: the book opens with “Entropy,” in which the speaker declares: “Hear Ye,/ I could not be silent :: Silence translates/ into all things and nothings,” and closes with “My Ban-Kai,” which states: “The world will hear my agony.” The speaker, suffering battle fatigue, acknowledges moments of confusion, despair, anxiety, and heartache — and the need to unburden the self through story and language.
In the poem “Letter Home No. 3” (the first two letters can be found in Bouquet of Flowers) the speaker writes to communicate his impressions after visiting the Pennsylvania countryside. As a site bearing the memory of civil war, the landscape’s injuries are still palpable:
There are only graves here, spires,
limestone hunks with bronze scabs
of history and grass
the color of spoiled regret.
That awareness of trauma echoes in the first two lines of “Conflict Chic” (“All around you are lands where the word/ tomorrow vapors at room temperature.”), affirming that America continues to be a “wounded empire” that disaffects its populations. In “Try Again,” beleaguered commuters are “bodies eager to be/ not-bodies”; in the harsh reality of “Men Die Miserably for Lack,” we are told most men will die the death of mutts, “barely a tally” and “no ink will be shed for them.” In such an environment, survival (as explained in “A History of Fear”) is precarious at best, particularly for its citizens of color: “Evolution has only been/ an evacuation route from divine wrath,/ ran from the horseman,/ ran from the runners who’d learned/ to eat other runners.”
No cure for logorrhea dementia exists, though its symptom — talking — comes equipped with its own relief, its own treatment: breathing. First, second, and third breaths is how Dargan divides the book — each section a unit of emotional release that, for all its unleashing, manages moments of grace like the following, which reads like the speaker’s artistic statement of purpose:
Rest me for one day
atop my revenue’s palate,
then shroud me and ship my body
to my mother …
Tell her I died
saving all of you from drowning —
that beneath water I spun
then stilled slowly
like a coin
dropped on its side.
Grace is the ingredient that lifts his fourth book, Honest Engine, out of the realm of the distress that infuses Logorrhea Dementia, and into a more hopeful plane, one in which the speaker dares to challenge his community at large to do better, to be better. In “China Syndrome,” the speaker, after a visit to that country, is impressed by its technological ingenuity, by its hunger for improvement. And so he questions whether that drive is still part of privileged, complacent America:
our American generation to cure something
major — erase one smudge from humanity’s
horizon. When did it come to be
that good ideas only migrate here?
Instead of aiming for collaboration, this country has become increasingly polarized. “House Divided” speaks to the nation’s current climate of racial strife: “In my America, my father/ awakens again thankful that my face/ is not the face returning his glare/ from above eleven o’clock news/ murder headlines.” America is on the brink of collapsing because it’s been reduced to “a flimsy Babel/ tower,” noisy with competing motivations and desires.
Despite these protestations, the speaker keeps coming back to the idea of “home.” Home — not only a place of shelter and belonging but also evidence of sentimental value and personal history — is worth struggling for. In “Ownership,” he declares: “I belong to that house/ more than it belongs to me.” And so when the speaker ponders China and Egypt, as he travels by bus, subway, and train, he muses homeward, and eventually redirects his story to the United States, to memories of a New Jersey childhood and other comfort zones that no matter how troubled will unequivocally welcome him. There are two honest engines at work in the book: the brain and the heart. The first looks at the exterior of the house and processes it intellectually and critically, the second considers its interior to appreciate the intimacies that make a home.
One of those intimacies is grief, which is a current that runs through Honest Engine, grief informed by religious faith. In “Words for the Departed,” the speaker considers death through a philosophical lens: “We are born/ to leave this place. We are born/ to eventually enter another.” Those left behind find mercy in memory, since the task for the living is “not calling our lost back but/ proving they once stood among us.” It’s a sentiment that’s echoed in “Dirge in April”:
First, this loss
of blossoms — a small heartbreak
followed by bit-lip humming
that somehow heals.
Honest Engine’s ultimate lesson is that home is the place of the necessary labors. And as the book that highlights a four-volume journey though the rough terrains of America, it’s a refreshingly prayerful and sympathetic view.
Ada Limón is a poet whose work often reaches for the metaphor and the arresting image that can give shape to uncertainty and limn with redemption the uncomfortable truths of everyday life. These transformations are not disguises or acts of denial. They do not evade reality, they widen its path, providing a different access — perhaps mercifully — to the emotionally draining human experiences.
Limón’s first two books Lucky Wreck (2006) and This Big Fake World (2007) were published only months apart but are startlingly disparate tones. The poems in Lucky Wreck tend to have speakers who are negotiating the loss of safety and innocence as they step into the wreckage of the broken world. In “The Unbearable,” for example, the speaker protests as her grandmother mindlessly rattles off the week’s tragic headlines. Frazzled, she retreats into her childhood: “in my mind, I had already left the room and walked/ up the street to the house I grew up in and laid/ down outside on the green cement.” But the house is only a refuge in the distant past, as explained in “Spring, 1989.” Since that date, when a mass murderer wreaked havoc in the town, the townspeople have been “looking over/ their shoulder for a dark enemy and one girl [the lone survivor of the massacre],/ over and over, returning to us — in a familiar shape,/ a good object, a hope in the weeds.”
Locating hope in “a good object” is a coping mechanism Limón keeps coming back to. In “The Ladybugs Grow Bolder Every Year,” the speaker, projecting her difficult times onto the tenacious insect, imagines herself “into that one red thing.” Throughout the book, in fact, there are many little things — little day, little kindness, little obsession — the diminutive does not lessen or diminish, it makes the overwhelming somehow finite and the unruly manageable.
By contrast, This Big Fake World (subtitled “a story in verse”) builds a stage that spotlights four unassuming characters (a businessman, his wife, his friend Lewis, and his love interest, the woman at the hardware store) whose passions intersect and disconnect to tell a very big story about love. The hero of the story is one of countless businessmen whose suit “looked/ like barbed wire.” Stuck in a dull profession and in a lifeless marriage, he recognizes what a small man he is so “he wishes for things smaller” — to collapse the town to the size of the snow globe and shake things up, particularly his wife. And he distances himself from her and makes repeated visits to the hardware store to see his secret crush, he lacks the courage to make a move although the woman at the hardware “wants to be a wall in his house where he hammers the nails.”
As the businessman’s marriage dissolves and his unrequited love evolves, his best friend Lewis writes pen pal letters to President Reagan about his boring little life. This is Lewis’s attempt at reaching out, like his friend, for something grand and remarkable. In one letter, chatting about the whale shark he saw on TV, Lewis confesses: “I want that swallowing mouth all to myself. I want it to take me in, in its big mouth, and keep me there until I grow old in its warm, warm belly, floating in this big fake world.” Attaching himself to someone more important makes him feel important, but hungering for connection makes this sad lonely man just like every other human.
As a study of relationships — why people long for them or run from them — This Big Fake World packs plenty into a “story in verse” that celebrates the unheralded heroes of their own quiet but significant dramatic plays:
Shouldn’t we make fire out of
everyday things, build something out of too many
nails and not wonder if we are right to build
without permission from the other dull furniture?
Sharks in the Rivers (2010) works from the premise that life is a tough, but survivable, journey, and that perseverance can be a redemptive experience that leads to grace, beauty, and inner strength. “The Widening Road” asks “When did the world begin to push us so quickly?” But instead on fixating on an answer, the more immediate response is to keep the self centered: “today it is enough/ that she desires and desires. That she is a body// in the world, wanting, the wind itself becoming// her own wild whisper.” This self-sufficiency is echoed in “High Water”: when the tide is high, “We become our own land sometimes.”
Because the elements are frequently invoked in the book, the animal kingdom participates as a symbol of energy, will, and empowerment. “Territory” offers an extensive list of animal spirits within the body, any one of them called forth at the appropriate moment: “Cowbird and grackle, black phoebe. /Every one of us has a bear inside/ (a scorpion, a rattlesnake).”
Birds play a more active role than the sharks invoked in the title, particularly in the sequence of poems “Fifteen Balls of Feathers.” During a lengthy and emotionally draining journey, the speaker reaches for the pre-Columbian myth of Huitzilopochtli (the Aztec sun and war god) because of his close association to the hummingbird — the perfect symbol (like the human heart) of fighting spirit and vulnerability. Each heartache, each personal devastation, leaves a battle scar — evidence of damage, certainly, but also of fortitude:
My invisible birds are still intact,
I can open myself up and show you,
they have muscled deep
into an actual nest of suspended song.
After mining the sweat of human struggle in her last three books, it’s quite fitting that in her fourth book, Bright Dead Things, Limón should embrace a more celebratory mood. The title is only misleading until the reader reaches “I Remember the Carrots,” in which the speaker proclaims: “I haven’t given up on trying to live a good life,/ a really good one even.” The bright dead things are the fruits of the earth, the fruits of one’s labor — work hard and reap the rewards.
There is much appreciation expressed for a life lived keenly attuned to the small yet meaningful ingredients of one’s surroundings — the noble horse, the loyal dog, and, in “The Rewilding,” the many tiny miracles of nature, “the native field flourishing selfishly, only for itself.” Life and beauty don’t need the human gaze to exist, but recognizing their blessedness produces joy. And from this joy the drive to move through the darker days, such as in “What Remains Grows Ravenous,” in which the speaker considers her father after the death of her stepmother: “The word widower looks like window./ Something you can see yourself in, in the dark.” In the face of mortality and impending loss, of what no longer is or might not be, the self hungers for light and love. But so too when the good times are threatened, such as in the love poem “State Bird,” in which the speaker preserves a relationship by following her sweetheart to a place outside her comfort zone: “whatever state you are, I’ll be that state’s bird,/ the loud, obvious blur of song people point to/ when they wonder where it is you’ve gone.”
A current of grief runs through Bright Dead Things that amplifies its moments of grace. Many times the speaker seems to be standing at the precipice of emotion, feeling all the more fortunate because of the precariousness of her position. “Midnight, Talking About Our Exes,” for example, illustrates that sentiment perfectly: “Let’s be owls tonight, stay up/ in the branches of ourselves, wide-eyed,/ perched on the edge of euphoric plummet.” This perch is neither recklessness or resignation, but (as explained in “We Are Surprised”):
the new way of living with the world
inside of us so we cannot lose it,
and we cannot be lost. You and me,
are us and them, and it and sky.
It’s hard to believe we didn’t
know that before; it’s hard to believe
we were so hollowed out, so drained,
only so we could shine a little harder
when the light finally came.
A poet whose verse exudes warmth and compassion, Limón is at the height of her creative powers, and Bright Dead Things is her most gorgeous book of poems.
As seasoned poets, Barry, Dargan and Limón have indeed arrived at their mid-career moments with excellent fourth books, which, interestingly enough, have remained faithful to many of the themes and preoccupations established in their debuts. This is not to declare the four books a cycle, but rather to acknowledge the rich landscapes on which these poets have been cultivating their art — one book is harvested not too far from another, yet each book stands independently of the rest. The true measure of a good poet is how well he or she builds upon the strengths of the previous work and keeps the new material freshly engaged with the linguistic, intellectual, and emotional pleasures of poetry. Barry, Dargan, and Limón, at mid-career, have reached a milestone that recognizes past accomplishments, and that generates excitement for the body of work yet to come.
Rigoberto González is the author of 16 books and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He is currently professor of English at Rutgers–Newark, The State University of New Jersey. He lives in New York City.