Chord by Rick Barot
Sarabande Books, Inc., 2015; 80 pp
Reviewed by Wesley Rothman


Experiments in Chord
—Preemptive Part II—

                                                I could go on
this way until the end of the page, even though

what I have in my mind isn’t the thing
itself, but the category of belief that sees the thing

as a shelter for what is beneath it.
There is no shelter[…] There is no tarp for dread,

whose only recourse is language
so approximate it hardly means what it means


A separate (very micro) review of Chord is coming out later in another venue, but brevity in that piece kept me from addressing some of the book’s greatest strengths. As a probably impetuous poet, I envy Barot’s measure and patience—the poems of Chord gently coax us into their arms where we learn about the mind and grief and how art preserves and distorts experience and how we manipulate our worlds, consciously or otherwise. This is an incredible strength of these poems, making them rather sleek, deft, and effective, for both the avid poetry reader and the less familiar. Many of these poems are constructed as reactive associations (from “On Gardens,” “When I read about the garden / designed to bloom only white flowers, / I think about the Spanish friar who saw one / of my grandmothers, two hundred years / removed, and fucked her.”), so the [re]act[ion] of making the poem is a construction of a reactive experience—the poem preserves and facilitates the association, incompletely groping at a memory, but revealing the complex relationship between art/nature/history and our individual, intricate memory networks. So many of these poems streamline narrative and lyric reflection, challenging a reader to meet these speakers in the middle—in other words, these are poems that raise necessary doubts and work toward meaningful, mindful compromise.

Another wonderful part of this book is a bit more elusive, but so potent: Barot’s poetic experiments or more formally/lyrically risky pieces, namely the title poem “Chord,” “Inventory,” and “Exegesis in Wartime.”

“Chord” (as musical chord? as emotion? as connection between points on a curve? as a component of suspension?), a triptych elegy for the poet’s grandmother, manipulates space and syntax in ways that allow our experience of it to blur and transform with and beyond its crafted discoveries; metaphors crisscross and symphonize in the first part (Annunciation), exploring the moment grief announces itself and we recognize it; the second section (Grasshopper), fractured by em-spaces, staggered stanzas, and punctuation-absence, keeps us moving and with grief and floats us to the poem’s closing third section (Threnody), a series of double-spaced, one-line sentence fragments, all beginning, “Chord that is”—this poem loosens some of the control that marks the majority of this book, and it echoes for us: “Chord that is your throat, its Sunday hymns unabashed, unstricken.”

“Inventory” is exactly that, an inventory of nouns remembered, observed, built into tercets, ending with,

The wish, biding inside like a hive of bees.
The crow, a knuckle of the landscape.
The stone, which is tired of the discursive.

This exploration too is less concerned with clarity of effect, but yields an amplified experience, urging the reader to ask questions, get involved, and consider what our associations are with these nouns/scenes; we are led through a potently empathic experience, learning about the speaker and ourselves.

“Exegesis in Wartime” staggers one series of stanzas (primarily rhetorically analyzing a sentence of Earnest Hemingway’s concerning war) with another (considering al-Mutanabi’s return to Baghdad in 965 and a contemporary soldier’s recollection of Baghdad and an explosion on Mutanabi Street), and the deliciously fastidious reflection regarding language, agency, relation, bird names and observation, sound experience, and interpretation of others’ chosen language launches us into a headspace that no one line or any phrase in the poem clearly identifies; this headspace lingers in torturous and consequentially humane ways because of the poems composition—it is, humbly, one of my favorite pieces of Chord.

And I am so grateful for the essential poems that confront and question colonialism, privilege, and other problematic (ß too-gentle a descriptor) mind positions: “On Gardens,” “Black Canvas,” “Ode: 1975,” and “Whitman, 1841.” In short, Chord is healthy for the craft of poetry and for the soul of society.