Dualities and Regret in Water Puppets by Quan Barry

Water Puppets

Water Puppets
BY Quan Barry
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012)

Quan Barry’s first two volumes of poetry, Asylym (2001) and Controvertibles (2006), are unique and lyrical, tipping their edges into the sun to pull up dazzling images. The lines are long and spidery, compounding to a breathtaking finish. Though the earlier collections did not shy away from the political, Barry’s latest collection, Water Puppets, makes new that long-lined form, investing more in the narrative and sources of repetition to reflect gut betrayals of language and land.

These poems create a larger sequence in the poetry of witness, where the speaker examines her own place within contemporary moments that include devastating wars in places that do not always claim ownership of the front page. The sites Barry sinks into are ones that lead to lines such as, “When we speak of you / we say the place we left behind, / when we speak of you we say / eventually” (p. 20). These are places of forgetting and profound neglect.

Made from lacquered wood, water puppets originated in the eleventh century in the flooded rice fields of Northern Vietnam. It isn’t until the fifth prose piece titled “poem” that we enter the literal world of the water puppet, “the stage knee-deep and so blue it looks solid.” It is through this poem that she arrives at the closing lines:

Tonight the world is a wheel, a song of perpetual lamentation. Know that the United States considered using nuclear weapons against these people. 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 in the obscuring blue water.

— p. 59

We have already experienced a similar reality in a previous piece, also titled “poem,” which ends with the sentence, “Despite their monstrousness, they are unmistakably human; one with his intestines on the outside of his body floats sucking his thumb” (p. 57). These images are at once visceral and frank, meant to place the reader precisely in the scene she presents.

The sequence of poems titled “learning the tones” are a deep contrast to many of her other, heftier-limbed poems; these are compact series of four couplets, hovering around six syllables, six poems total, each named after the six Vietnamese vocal tones. These poems contain some of the most elegant language of the book:

from “[ngang]”: “It’s what just skims the earth. / Hope. Flower.
Afternoon. Ghost.”
from “[sac]”: “the moon / with its long bright ears”
from “[huyen]”: “How like rain // even the sound of the word sad /
slides down the face.”
from “[hoi]”: “This is the most difficult sound of all. / This is
the sound of begging.”
from “[nang]”: “”beautiful things also come from below— /
rice seedlings, music, wine, // & yet we suffer”

It is within these poems where the poet poses the question: “Who would I be if I stayed?” Here we begin to understand the personal investment in the cultural and individually human ramifications of war. In Barry’s first “poem,” she writes, “this child of the enemy who stayed and made a life for himself in a country where people say such children were born from mud” (p. 55). Much later in the book, Barry writes in the poem “history,” “how did I end up here what was I search for alabaster skin like a dinner plate” (p. 61). These concerns are compounded — history, regret, belonging.

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