Rick Barot, whose first book, The Darker Fall, won Sarabande Books’ Kathryn A. Morton Prize in 2002, is back with another impressive collection, Want.
Longing surfaces and resurfaces throughout Want, most evidently in “Echo,” an allusion to the nymph of Ovid’s Metamorphoses whose love for Narcissus goes unrequited.
The poem, cleverly, is a ghazal, the repetition at the end of each couplet generating an obsessive, reflective tone without ever feeling forced or gimmicky:
I am in the city looking for him, forcibly drawn to
the square glass eyes. A light is on in the hundredth story.
Street black as an eel, the concussing look of him inside
its puddle. I play lamp-post to the dark of his story.
In “Theories of the Invisible,” Barot collages pithy, lush observations about art with the fleshly beauty of a man with whom the speaker shared a summer house. In pondering the nipple of a Greek sculpture, Barot notes the “deliberate / chiseling accorded even to the brailled / texture surrounding the stiff eraser-like tip” as well as “the prerogative no of the youth something I can only imagine, / no worked into the cold sinew, the utterly / soft cock.” In this way, Barot intimates that the speaker’s adoration for his summer housemate was also unrequited. Quatrain after delicate quatrain, Barot parallels the exquisite untouchability of works of art to his mystery man: “In the oldest paintings, you can see the green // and blue in their cracked faces, the cold / origin just underneath.” Nodding to the title of his collection, Barot ends by asking, “What is it to be here but to want?”
Everywhere, Want balances moments of erudition and astute observation with the corporeal, the heartbreakingly physical. In “Early Greek Thinking,” Barot observes that “the ideal is broken / like the cracked vase in / the museum, on which have // been painted naked hoplites / carrying shields, riding // cherubic dolphins.” Following this simile, Barot moves to an anecdote from Petrarch, and then we are taken aback, and into our bodies, by the lovely and tender present:
This morning, still sleeping,
your face seemed sweet,
a coin under water. It was
as though you weren’t there.
Read Want for its sheer sensory overload, the beauty of the words. In the suite “Seven Poems,” Barot recalls in poem 2, “East,” his native Philippines: “What took me so long to come back here?” In the next, “Washington Circle,” he observes: “A sprinkler pays out / its lines of water, a man bathes at the park’s / drinking fountain. What can I hope against all / your ocean? It is twelve hours later where / you are, the dawn unsullied, having hidden / its malfeasances in the dark.”
In his atmospheric settings, his intellect, and his lush employment of syntax and elision, Barot most resembles poet Carl Phillips. But so too, he is like the unnamed Classical vase painters, who used prescribed forms and delicate lines to create images that were all at once descriptive, unique, and mythical.
By Rick Barot Sarabande Books
Paperback, $13.95, 67p