Poems should tempt our desires or tempt us to resist desire. If we concede that poems should help us improve ourselves, then let’s not concede that poems need to tell us how to improve. A poem that tempts us can then go on and do whatever the hell it’d like.
Zach Barocas structures his first book, Among Other Things, around a series of “Proposals,” succinct, often imagistic assertions toward a way of perceiving, and, ultimately, of living in a world of relative perspectives and revolving morals. Barocas, though almost never evasive in statement but striving for clarity of expression, manages to elude a didactic or dogmatic tone. His proposals are just that—offerings we can leave or take, as the speaker may as well. The strength of Among Other Things comes from the tension between Barocas’ attention to clarity and his distrustfulness of conclusive statements (though he attempts them again and again).
What’s radical about Barocas’ book, in a time when emerging poets have rightfully taken all liberties with language, is the essay-like precision of his sentencing, which is no less musical than any above-average avant-garde lyricist. His ethos, though does not align him with stodgy formalists: “Better to keep an eye to the banks,/transformative areas.” Though mostly the poems find centering around images presented as examples, Barocas is adept with abstract language play:
Immaculate of certainty or
immaculate from certainty,
I want to move
as the shallows move.
But Barocas is careful not to represent absolutes in statement or image:
It is possible
to live with distrust,
to fear metaphors
& images, too.
The poet’s task that Barocas asserts in his poems is not to be “any kind/of photographer,” amplifier of philosophical stances, or lyricist, but to explore arrangements of language with a cautious positivism:
ness is key, clarity
is key, exactitude,
like purity is key.
The irony of employing a simile to define exactitude resembles the contradictory ironies of other emerging poets who rebel against the dull, plain-spoken literal minds of the recent past. Barocas’ irony is not meant to befuddle, but to point out the hazy spots encountered whenever we attempt to articulate transcendent experiences.
In “An Uncertain and Derivative Mood,” Barocas asserts more doubts: “I’m distrustful of our flair for heartbreak.” He says, though, “I crave/the knowledge that we will lift each other so.” Though I like this poem, Barocas treads on a treacherous surface. As seen in many poems by James Wright, the poet evoked in the poem, sentimental indulgence, even when masterfully handled, can cause a reader to cringe:
Ambivalent? I want most of all to fit,
& to not betray & also not be trite.
I’ve lied. I’m begging you to spend the night.
I am spelling out this sin as means, not end.
Surely sentiment is what sends poets to find truth in rhyme. What I find endearing in even the clang (slight in this case, and rare in Barocas’ poems) is the unapologetic have-at-it.
Not surprisingly, Barocas is strongest in his essay-like poems on music. In “Two Distinctions,” Barocas explains defines “chord” and “harmony” and claims
tinction is small, & not
always important. Here,
however, it is.
As comfortable as Barocas is with both elegy and meditation, and, weirdly, a sort of synthesis of both, subtleties of precision befit the movement of the book through the poems. In “Tenth Proposal,” he echoes himself:
& volatile &
should be treated so.
The four lines offer Barocas at his best: the boldness approaching audacity in the first line followed by the under-cuttingly cautious turn on “delicate” in the second line lead in to the rhapsodic “volatile” and conclude in direct advice that nevertheless seems to tentatively state the almost-obvious. The poem resolves in a blanketing conclusion:
must at all times act
graciously with one’s
The repetition of “one” enforces a focus on one as the self reflecting on the self while allowing the phrase to resonate ambiguously between the first, second, and third person. “Fifteenth Proposal” offers a similar thought redirected to the outer world, among other things: “let each/form sustain our grace/& humility.” Sentiment holds together when it’s revelatory.
Poetry needs evidence that there is o dichotomy of styles. I am not certain how to offer an example of the perceived halves of American poetry, but certainly that halving is familiar to everyone. Barocas’ adherence to rhetoric and music at once, without relying on narrative or indulging in the literal, seems to point, as tentatively as his proposals do to improved living, to mending a gap that probably never was.
--Review by Matthew Henriksen.