Water Puppets, Quan Barry’s third full-length collection and winner of the 2010 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, is anything but puppetry, striking a forceful blow against the idea of poetry as naïve navel-gazing. It takes as its motivating question, “What does poetry have to do with the real world?” and throws an emphatic response, as Barry builds a narrative at once personal and political, reflecting on her own past as an immigrant from Vietnam as well as the current state of world affairs. Even in the seemingly innocuous start, “lion,” which highlights Barry’s lyrical skill, we fall into an unmistakably politicized world: “When the American unlocks the hinged door / our shackled hearts contract.” From here, the narrative delves into questions of gender, war, and the way our sense of being is indexed to our place in time, as n an early poem, “learning the tones,” in which Barry explores in six short segments the way in which the tones of the Vietnamese language shape the speaker’s idea of self:
Imagine water traveling back up
into the sky, the sound of it
climbing like a question. Má?
Who would I be if I had stayed?
But Barry’s most forceful pieces in the collection come when she releases her grasp on the lines, allowing them to veer from topic to topic, drawing parallels across continents, attempting to unlock her own place in the world, which gives rise to forceful poems such as “reportage”—a broken meditation on the life of a journalist after witnessing acts of horror in the course of covering the Congolese conflict. Barry’s poem is obsessive in its pacing, circling back on key phrases to highlight the haunted nature of the reflection:
the anchorman asks for the moral this is a story
of dormancy cf. a red flag means someone is dead
the journalist says it could never happen again
because the army is et cetera the world community
is et cetera though he is not immune to the fact
As the poem progresses and the syntax blurs ambiguously, the reader can no longer identify where the voice of the poet stops and that of the journalist begins, which subtly advances the idea, confirmed elsewhere in the collection, of poet-as-journalist, actively engaged in the history-making events of our world.
Of course, dedicated readers of Barry’s work know that she does not shy from the political—some of the more gorgeous moments in Controvertibles, her previous book, found her crafting delicate comparisons from grisly news, as in the heartbreaking, “Emmett Till’s Open Casket as La Pietà.” Yet in Water Puppets, the political has taken the center stage—it seems Barry can no longer deny the citizen aspect of her role as citizen-poet—and with that comes a blunt honesty and a clear perception of her place in the world. The collection is marked by the sense of living in America in the early 21st century, in the shadow of two wars in the Middle East, and repeatedly, Barry admits that she, “was in favor of the war and now look what’s happened.” To call it guilt would be incorrect, but the poems are certainly haunted, if nothing else, by the speaker’s survival, her ability to continue to exist amidst grotesque acts of cruelty, as she writes in the standout poem “Thanksgiving:”
At the end of the road the man driving the truck will eat
the deer. If I had to watch someone be torn apart by motorbikes
I would still be me, which is the horror of it all.
None of which is said to suggest that Barry’s poems are merely topical—above all, this collection refuses to choose between the pointed and the poignant, suggesting instead that there is as much poetry, and tragedy, in our global world as in all the great works of the canon. Nor is her work shackled by ideology or the advancement of a specific agenda; her focus is on the human response to the inhumanity. Above all, she never forgets the role of the poet in the construction of the poet-citizen: the collection is held together by her impressive ability to wed moving images with rhetoric, as in “Sunday Essay,” in which she writes:
On the way home the late spring moon a scythe
and the night a net closing. The body is self-programmed to die.
Nowhere is this melding of thought and beauty as prominent as in the collection’s centerpiece, “meditation,” a sixteen-page unraveling of narrative threads as diverse as Nelson Mandela, religious tolerance in France, and the speaker’s own history as an emigrant from Vietnam until we are left with the final image, one which can be said to encapsulate Barry’s entire collection: “In Mongolia there are singers / who can sing two notes at the same time. // One phrase deep and rich, ice moving downhill. The other / like birds flying.” In a later series of prose poems, all austerely entitled “poem,” Barry enacts this notion of cognitive dissonance, so pivotal to her collection, in the tradition of Vietnamese water puppet theatre, from which the title is derived:
Close your eyes. Imagine the guilt-free life you might live someday, then remember why you don’t deserve it. Eventually the puppets whirl down into the obscuring blue water.
This final line, spoken more as desire than description, collects the central need of the collection—for what haunts our lives to fade away. It is this unattainable thirst for peace that underscores the acts of horror, and it is what gives Barry’s poetry its emotional force. Above all, Water Puppets forces us to remember what we don’t want to see, to hold our inhumanity up against the “shards of beauty” in the world, so that we may not forget what it is that gives our lives meaning.
Michael Martin Shea is an MFA Candidate at the University of Mississippi, where he is a John and Renée Grisham Fellow in poetry. New poems are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sycamore Review, Willow Springs, and elsewhere.
University of Pittsburgh Press: 2011