Strange Cargo

The Galleons
 by Rick Barot
Milkweed Editions, 2020

by Paula Stacey, PIOnline staff write

IN THIS online post for the Poetry Society of America, Rick Barot reflects on one of the poems in his collection, The Galleons, noting how it is “ostensibly about one thing–the lilacs of spring” but how it also contains what he calls, “a strange cargo.” The poem in question is “The Names” and the strange cargo Barot refers to is a meditation on his first name and the legacy it carries. The reference to cargo is no accidental turn of phrase, as cargo is a defining and exciting feature of each of the twenty-eight poems within this slim and rich volume. 

To a greater or lesser degree in all of the poems, but certainly, in the ten poems entitled “The Galleons” that are woven through the collection, Barot moves us fluidly between past and present, illuminating the past in the present. Take “The Galleons 4,” which starts simply with the speaker sitting on a park bench in Brooklyn, comparing his day to the one O’Hara records in “The Day Lady Died,”  a day that “must be like the one I am having now,” he writes, continuing—

when everyone who should be at work is at work
and the trees are meditating

on how muggy it will be today
and the fleets of strollers are out in the sunshine

expanse of the morning
the strollers are like galleons

carrying their beautiful gold cargo
being pushed by women whose names once graced

the actual galleons
Margarita Magdalena along with the other names

Essie Maja from places that history has patronized
like O’Hara going into the bank 

for money or the bookstores to buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what 

the poets / in Ghana are doing these days

The moves that take us from the strollers and the women pushing them to the actual galleons bearing their names show the grace and ease with which Barot, without argument or even judgment, fuses our choices to the deep origins that made these choices possible. Avoiding the fanfare or drama of discovery, Barot gives us moment after moment of such small surprises, each asking us to look upon the strange–sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrific, seemingly banal, but always important–cargo that we all carry.

Barot announces this project with these lines, the first of the opening poem, “The Grasshopper and the Cricket.”

The poetry of earth is a ninety-year-old woman
in front of a slot machine in a casino in California.

and ends with these—

I used to think that to write poems, to make art,
meant trying to transcend the prosaic elements

of the self, to arrive at some essential plane, where
poems were supposed to succeed. I was wrong.

Who needs transcendence when the real thing is sitting right here?

The Galleons is available for purchase at Milkweed Editions.


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