Sunday, July 17, 2005

On Rick Barot's "Magnolia"

There is something indefinable about Rick Barot's "Magnolia" that feels just right to me. I think it achieves a level of perfection that very few poems do. I've always found it simpler to justify why a poem is stylistically perfect and substantively competent than to explain why it reaches another level, but I'll give it a shot here and go through the poem.

Most fundamentally, the poem contains a few of my personal favorite "moves" in poetry -- shifts in setting and time, original language and imagery, and unspoken yet meaningful and profound emotions hidden just below the surface. An aura of wonder and sorrow permeates the poem, which deals (if not directly then obliquely) with life, death, companionship, everyday conversations, small town life, class, and love, and you feel that Barot is going for more octaves than a lesser poem would dare to attempt.

I do not think that the opening two and a half couplets are the strongest lines in the poem (I'm not sure where the poem wants to go at this point, "small" is a bit of a cliched adjective to describe noise and "small noise" itself is a bit of a cliche, "small noise" and "small bird" are somewhat vague descriptions, and "birds" have gone-a "chirping" before in many pieces of writing.) Still, if I was a conscientious and not autocratic professor, I would note that these opening lines may be necessary for the rest of the poem, and Barot at least partly compensates for these choices with the second line of the fifth couplet -- "now I have you listening." Indeed, throughout the poem, the form of couplets is really quite effective at keeping the reader's attention.

In any case, I feel that the poem picks up with the second line of the third couplet/first line of the fourth couplet -- "one more office for the eye and ear/to momentarily inhabit" -- which I found to be pleasing in both a linguistic and sensory sense. As is fairly typical in Barot's poetry, and which is done quite well here, there is a series of transitions between brief and nicely turned phrases that evoke mood and place (for example, "the radiator" makes me think of an old couple in a cozy urban apartment, the stuff about the miners makes me think of laborers and the work of ordinary townsfolk, and the "cold light of a all-night laundromat" makes me think of loneliness and isolation but not necessarily sadness).

More on the "all-night laundromat": as I've read the poem, most of the poem is apparently set in a laundromat late at night. Being a night person, I especially appreciate the calm and subtle intellectual energy generated by two people conversing in easy tones late at night here. No one is around to judge them, and they can carry on with the pedantic chore of doing laundry while talking to each other to pass the time. I usually like stuff about ordinary life, and here people are talking about the news. Also, there is something oddly provocative about laundromats -- with the "personals" of private articles of clothing being washed and dried in a "public" arena in front of other people.

The description of the train carrying the body of the president is done well. The "vivid grief of flowers" and the smell of the body covered by flowers returns to the image of the magnolia, which becomes more important later in the poem.

More powerful, however, are the transitions from these "flowers" to the "psychidelic circle of colors spinning/ in the glass of a dryer" to the "magnolia/ opening and destroying" itself. Read these couplets carefully, because I think that the five or six couplets starting from "mean something..." are some of the strongest and most magical in the poem. To have the "pyschidelical circle of colors spinning" is one thing, but to immediately follow that up with "white clothes/ spinning in another dryer" is a brilliant move, not only because it eases the reader into the image of the magnolia but because the contrast of colors and tones provides a lovely spectacle.

Of the descriptions of the "doctor," the "boy," and the "flight attendant" that Barot lists after his solid description of the magnolia, I think that the one about the "boy" interests me most. It is sandwiched between two descriptions which work fine but are a bit more purposefully garish in terms of style and substance. The line -- "...the boy who/ finally understands that the secret to/ getting hit is knowing that you will be hit" -- presnts a fascinating and frightening paradox; the boy gets physically hit but the harm done to him paradoxically prepares him for being hit, and Barot leaves it up in the air as to whether it is good or bad that the boy comprehends this "secret."

Finally, and I'm sorry for going a tad long here, I really enjoyed the ending of the poem. I am not sure that I quite understand who the "her" is that is referenced in the line "place/ it into her mouth" in the third couplet from the end of the poem (Is it the mouth of the "word" or the "flight attendant"?), but it doesn't matter too much. The poem makes a wonderful metamorphosis into a love poem with the simple but direct lines, "I would find the right for you" and "I would correct the world in this manner, because you are listening," which is a move that a less confident poet writing a less confident poem would not make. We are returned to the laundromat, having traveled far and briefly with two interesting companions in a small town/urban laundromat who may or may not be ourselves on a warm summer night.


Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

Thanks for the interesting insights into this poem.

It took a few re-reads to see all of what you were seeing within it.

(By my tastes, it's a little long to get to where it's going.)

But it's definitely an intriguing piece.

The couplet structure works for it.

On an off note, I have to admit, I wound up researching magnolias in general and walked away from my results thinking that these simple flowers really have people taking the care and study of them to some very complex levels- even DNA microbiology to determine the proper classification of the magnolias...

That verges on waaay too far for me, but hey, look at me. I'm writing about Asian American Poetry on a lunch break.

Having spent more than my fair share of time in the world in a late-night laundromat, I have to second the feeling of being within one as I linger within the poem.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

On a somewhat amusing note. All this discussion of laundromats and late night hijinks winds up making me think of Futureshock's Late At Night video. For the bored, you can check it out over at

Have a good one!

10:06 AM  
Blogger Patty said...

Thank you for posting this poem, and your close reading of it.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Patty,
You're very welcome, and thanks for the comments!

5:01 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Bryan, thanks for the comments! Yes, I'd say that the couplet structure helps with the length of the poem.

In general, I'm fine with longer poems, provided that they keep my interest throughout, of course. But I wouldn't say that a longer poem is necessarily superior to a shorter poem. Sometimes poets' relatively longer poems get praised over their shorter works, and it puzzles me when I think that their shorter poems are better.

5:06 AM  
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6:35 PM  

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