There is saying that “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” derisively suggesting that teachers only resort to teaching because they are professional failures in their chosen fields. But Rick Barot’s Chord is the kind of book that will make readers see the reality that sometimes those who can—like Barot—are also willing to teach. Luckily for us. There is saying that “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” derisively suggesting that teachers only resort to teaching because they are professional failures in their chosen fields. But Rick Barot’s Chord is the kind of book that will make readers see the reality that sometimes those who can—like Barot—are also willing to teach. Luckily for us.
Take, for example, the poem “Exegesis in Wartime,” which quotes the soldier-poet al-Mutanabi as describing a fever as a woman who “spent the night in my bones.” Barot treats the phrase with teacherly attention:
Two clauses, virtually two lines of iambic
pentameter, the first foot so much in
a hurry that it is missing its first breath.
As “Exegesis in Wartime” cites and then explicates one excerpt about war after another, it points to both a simplicity at the root of the nature of violence and to the way beauty can nonetheless prevail through our continued attention to it. As Barot articulates the crafting of each of the lines he cites, he creates an illusion of emotional remove even as he pulls his own focus ever sharper and closer to the details. The elements of craft—syntax, image, story, and the like—become a system of conscious plot points throughout Chord, and Barot’s approachable expository style reinforces this in the way all truly great teachers do. This is a book that will appeal to readers’ intellectual curiosity as well as their emotions.
To this end, there is also “Inventory,” a list poem which, true to its title, inventories the home, the lover’s body, and finally, the outdoors. “Moon that is the sun of statues. Cornice / pigeons, accordion storefront gates, trash,” Barot lists, before landing slyly on “The stone, which is tired of the discursive.”
The language in Chord is often quite plain, at least as far as poetry generally goes. But this is one of the book’s strengths, as it allows the occasions Barot finds in tarps and refrigerators and other unlikely subjects to hold unexpected poetic weightiness: this is a book that gets along just fine without grandstanding, and instead makes excellent use of understatement.
Because of this, the moments of unabashed beauty shine all the more, as when “Tacoma Lyric” uses the fact of an image’s life in the speaker’s memory to vividly sustain it: “the sugarcane fields are still burning somewhere, / the smoke boiling gold and gray.”
The book jumps around in time and space, without bothering to organize itself in terms of any sort of route or chronology—adult events, childhood memories, and the upbringing of Barot’s grandparents are all mingled together, along with “Whitman, 1841,” a poem that wonderfully recounts what details are known of a rather troubling incident in the life of the poet Walt Whitman.
But Chord avoids rooting itself in any particular time or place because it doesn’t need to. Barot invests the invisible with weight and meaning, as time and again, his poems seem to point back to the idea he suggests in “Brown Refrigerator,” that “You don’t have to understand it / but you will carry it anyway.”
If Chord is a book preoccupied with understanding or, perhaps, with sense-making, then it is also a book about faith. This isn’t to suggest that the poems are religious—they are not—but that the book is occupied by a reliance and an insistence on valuing what is felt but unseen, and on the necessity of bearing even the inexplicable burdens because, as “Black Canvas” argues at the beginning of the book, “what’s visible isn’t always superior / to what can’t be seen[.]”