What does Eternity Look Like: A Review of Barot’s The Galleons

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In Rick Barot’s new collection, The Galleons, the opening poem, entitled “The Grasshopper and the Cricket,” concludes with these final three couplets:

and her money will go far into the afternoon.
And because waiting is thinking, I am thinking

of the eternity Keats writes about in the sonnet
about the grasshopper and the cricket, ceasing never

in the hedges and meadows, in the evening stove:
the grasshopper of summer, the cricket of winter.

Considering the speaker’s winding mediation from a “ninety-year-old woman” in a Californian casino, to Gertrude Stein, to waiting “in a food court” reading about “the languages the world is losing,” perhaps it is no surprise that we should end on a reflection of the temporality in the Keats’ poem “On the Grasshopper and Cricket”. But the final thought that portends this landing place, “I am thinking of the eternity,” might beg the question, well what is the eternity that Keats writes about?

We might find the hint in the opening line of Keats’s On the Grasshopper and Cricket, “The Poetry of earth is ceasing never,” a similar declension with which Barot’s poem opens. In Keats’ poem, the speaker’s meditation is actually one of imagination. As the speaker begins to consider what the grasshopper will sound like in the summer, “a voice will run,” results in an imagined sound that is experienced in the speaker’s present, in a hazy half-sleep, upon hearing the sound of the cricket in winter. What we take then is that the phrase “The Poetry of earth ceasing never” finds its eternalness because the imagination of the speaker’s mind has made it so.

The “eternity” that Barot’s speaker is thinking about, which is one of the main focal points of the collection, is one that actually undertakes the work of fantasy, imagination, and memory. These are all elements, according to Keats, through which one can access the eternal. It is from this launch that the temporality, and much of the success, of The Galleons is explicated; that moments of episodic memory, history, and a narration of the past, coupled with the imaginative work of the speaker, implicate themselves to inform the speaker’s present.

From this base, it is clear that the ten recurrent, eponymous poems of the collection—the series of “The Galleon” poems—are meditations that focus on past: a building and memorializing of the speaker’s familial heritage. But this work can be tainted by the fallibility of imagination.

“The Galleon” poems elucidate the immediacy of this obstacle; “Her story is part of something larger…No her story is an illumination/of history…Or, no, her story is separate from the whole…Or, her story is surrounded by history.” The ambiguous “her” could be that very same “old woman” at a casino, or more likely, it could be the speaker’s own grandmother whose histories are being drawn upon. In any case, the reader’s first introduction to this sequence of poems is to a speaker whose thought and syntax are under constant strain of self-correction. The stakes of this are made clear by the final two couplets of “The Galleon 1:”

to know that anyone sees her. Her daughter is two,
the blur of need at the center of each day’s

incessant rocking. Here is a ship, an ocean.
Here is a figure, her story a few words in the blue void.

Scale, both physical and temporal, are in constant flux in the series of poems – from a speaker looking through old ship ledgers to sitting on a plane striking up casual conversation with a Marine Corp veteran to leaving an elderly, loved one’s side for perhaps the last time. “The Galleon” acts not only as a literal, physical vessel, but as a metaphoric one that allows time and place to be transcended by an imaginative meditation.

What is happening in these last two couplets, though, mimics much of this movement, a movement which varies in degrees of emotional immediacy. There is the daughter whose immediate needs “blur” and take “center,” but there is also a need that extends well into the future and encompasses a larger collective. Each story of immigration is larger than the present. As Barot’s speaker defines it earlier in the poem, this history “leads past the one.” Getting the story wrong, then, is a dangerous proposition.

Much is at stake; the speaker’s own history and, perhaps more poignantly, others’ histories are under threat of becoming blurred or inaccurately altered through the process of writing. Those “few words in a blue void” have power. The speaker undertakes the responsibility of memorialization, but in this process of temporal reconciliation, begins to grasp a better understanding of the self; as Barot’s speaker says in “The Galleons 10,” “I had a fate, it took me/across an ocean.”

Keats viewed good poetry as coming “naturally as leaves to a tree,” and if it didn’t, “it had better not come at all.” In the same way, he was also critical of poetry that had “a palpable design upon us.” Meditations can come with such pitfalls. The inherent danger of meditative poetry is the exact palpability which Keats described: in which a conceit seems too falsely impressed onto the poem so as to feel overly prescript, guided, and knowing. Much to the credit of Barot’s craft, another success of The Galleons, is that, to a large extent, the collection avoids this unnatural accretion of meditative thought and language.

However, this is not to say that there aren’t moments that tread the line of palpability. For example, in the poem “UDFJ-39546284,” the ending conceit, “For context, today I learned that the farthest galaxy/we know, located by scientists in 2011,” is a way in which the speaker is understanding “distance and time” and the complicating difference between “foreground and context,” the distinction being, respectively, “present and past.” However, I questioned the utility of this, as it seemed to pull too suddenly away from the intimacy of the speaker’s memory of the Philippines and a photograph “of my grandmother’s/hands.” The move to galaxy then, is a convenience rather than one that surprises but does not obviate the complexities of time the speaker is grappling with. To use one of Barot’s speaker’s terms, the “muscular logic” of the poems can sometimes feel too muscular.

The reason that this example comes to mind is because the sequence of the four poems (“The Galleons 3,” “The Blink Reflex,” “Virginia Woolf’s Walking Stick,” and “Dragged Mass”) that almost immediately proceed “UDFJ -39546284” begin to balance the intricacies of temporality in more exciting ways. The intangibility of writing about time poses a unique challenge when it comes to craft. But whether they are objects (Virginia Woolf’s walking stick on display at a museum), people from the speaker’s past (an ex-lover), or conversations in the present (a friendly chat on an airplane) there is an unabashed desire to scale the temporal, “so enormous it seems more conceptual than actual,” down to its tangible elements.

Throughout The Galleons, so much is alluded to of poetic cannon: from the mention of Keats, to an invocation of John Dunne, to the back cover of the book citing Barot’s Rilkean attention to lyric scope and thought. And too, amid many other references and nods, there are poems that reference an even newer cannon: “The Galleons 4,” is thematically reminiscent of “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara, and the poem “On Some Items in the Painting by Velazquez,” reminds me of some of the poems in Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall.

The eclectic nature of the poem’s referents—literary and otherwise— adds another dimension to the work and formulates another important question for the collection: in what ways can we reimagine and recount literature, specifically of cannon, to encompass those histories that have largely been ignored?

Memory, imagination, and the very act of writing are all ways in which a person, a place, or a story can be immortalized, but there must be balance: the fulcrum is humility. Neither the poet nor the speaker is exempt from infallibility. Nowhere is this more evident that the final poem of the collection, “Ode With Interruptions,” and the concluding couplets:

I used to think that to write poems, to make art,
meant trying to transcend the prosaic elements

of the self, to arrive at some essential plane, where
poems were supposed to succeed. I was wrong.

Here, specifically, the “prosaic elements” can be taken to mean the litany of observation made while the speaker’s grandmother is inside of a hospital. The mind then expands from this point, imagining a litany outside this space. More broadly, it can be said that the particular meditative craft which Barot employs throughout the collection is a signal of these same “prosaic elements” that the speaker draws attention to in the final poem. This “prosaic element” of observation combines with the speaker’s desire to connect with the past in almost every poem in the collection, in turn this yields a record of events in the present whose implications can be traced
backward or forward in time.

The scholar Theresa M. Kelly has said about Keats and his ekphrastic work that “art [is] like geological formations, made in time and out of matter.” Observation is simply preservation of the present. What Barot has managed to create, then, is almost an ekphrasis of the living, where quotidian elements of daily life act as launching points to imagine the past and assemble the future.

The Galleons itself, then, is a living ledger. One that recounts stories and histories of immigration, familial and personal loss, and the speaker’s own trajectory as a writer. The ways in which Barot balances the temporal, observational, and intimate scales of the collection is a skill worth admiring and reading again and again.