Loose Strife by Quan Barry, Reviewed by Elizabeth Bodien
Quan Barry’s fourth book of poetry, Loose Strife (University of Pittsburgh, 2015) focuses on violence, from genocide to domestic abuse. Apparent immediately is Barry’s unusual use of space – a variety of line spacings and dual-justified poems that make for odd spaces between words.
The title comes from Aeschylus’s Oresteia, a tragedy about the house of Atreus and its cycle of violence. Greek history, myth, and etymology figure in several poems. In the poem “loose strife (‘As in loosely inspired’),” Barry explains why “loose strife” was chosen:
for the classical sense of loosing battle, sowing chaos,
which the last twenty-five hundred years
have done nothing to diminish. (19-21)
Curiously, this explanation is presented as a poem rather than a preface. Another curious feature is that twenty poems are titled “loose strife” which, in the table of contents, are differentiated by including the first words of each poem in parentheses after the words “loose strife.” This repetitive titling reinforces the book’s theme—the ubiquity of violence in human history.
Quan Barry was born in Vietnam, raised in the United States, and now teaches at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Loose Strife is the product of a 2012 exhibition with a paper sculptor at the Edgewood College Gallery in Madison, Wisconsin where among the primarily red, black, and white images were cut-out hand images arranged sculpturally. However, Barry’s book stands firmly on its own with its own bricolage of stark images, such as “saffron robes as if their bodies have burst into blossom” (22) in the first poem or “how the flesh / comes away in his hand like over-cooked meat from the bone” (73) in the poem “craft (‘The man in the Hawaiian shirt’).”
The first poem offers a tool: “Draw a map . . . Let it be your way into the poem” (14-15). Maps orient the horror: “Every last map resplendent with death . . . Here is the spot where she found human bones in the well” (31, 36).
In “loose strife (‘Listen closely as I sing this’),” we want to do anything but listen closely:
The man standing at the gate
tottering on his remaining limb is a kind of metronome.(1-2)
Yes, I have made him beautiful
because I aim to lay all my cards on the table. (3-4)
Barry portrays a large swath of brutality and suffering with a cool, self-conscious control and unusual visual placements of poems, many only on the left halves of pages. In “craft” (‘The first great poet’),” the poem itself justifies its unusual placement on one side of the page:
when faced with
difficult material the
poet should begin
obliquely creeping in
from the edge a square
of light moving
imperceptibly across the
floor as the earth turns (14-21)
Most poems are dual-justified poems with groupings of two, three or four lines, some indented, some in columns. The wide spacing of words slows down the reading, rendering the voice more emphatic. The rationale behind the specific forms for individual poems is not always clear. The odd spacing of words and the unusual placement of poems on each page create obstacles for the reader accustomed to more conventionally presented poems but such obstacles are entirely appropriate for the difficult content – lines such as “the man-child hanging by / the shining black noose / of his own hair” (47-49) in “craft (‘The first great poet’).” This is not an easy book.
In “loose strife (Embarrassingly it was just outside the tunnels),” Barry offers a view of death as a capacity:
and I realized I had the capacity to die,
that capacity was the right word.
that it was a power, an aptitude, an ability (22-24)
“Ars” is an erasure poem; what text has been erased isn’t clear. Are we to hope that, like the erasures here, war might be erased? Often in the middle of horror, there are flashes of beauty, or at least, relief. In “loose strife (‘Say, when we woke’),” a poem about war and rape:
I saw a human man standing by a lake…
on the surface of the water cleaner than anything in this world. (17-19)
The juxtapositions here and in “loose strife (‘Listen closely as I sing this’),” suggest that poetry itself may be redemptive:
the two million dead. There are seventy-four forms
of poetry in this country and each one is still meant to be sung. (35-36)
An especially horrific poem— “loose strife (‘Everyone dreams of being harmed’)” —is about a serial killer and another –“loose strife (‘At ninety seven Mimi says’)”—is about environmental destruction, for example:
All the way down Highway 42 the trees split
unnatural, their shapes bizarre, violently geometric
as they twist themselves around power lines, each tree
engaged in a self-crucifixion (2-5)
In “loose strife (‘Everywhere in the seven seas’),” Barry describes the demise of sharks as falling “general throughout in a night without end . . . like a rain of lost souls descending” (10, 13) and I am reminded of the end of “The Dead” by James Joyce about snow being “general all over Ireland.” Although the scenes are different, a tone of resignation pervades, a resignation to, or at least an observation of, something natural that seems inevitable.
One does not expect any kind of rhyme in this mostly free verse collection but in “The Lord be with you / but not also with you,” the stanzas end with “paradise,” “pair of dice,” “Paired & diced,” “parrot dies,” “Poirot dyes,” and “Per dies” (6, 12,18, 24,36,42). These sonic variations are dissimilar enough that they are not obvious but they serve, almost subliminally, to pull the poem together and give it a light touch.
The last poem – “loose strife (‘We are not allowed that’),” much of it borrowed from a National Geographic article including the quotation below, describes the Lykov family who lived for decades utterly alone in Siberia until discovered in 1978, completely unaware of World War II. Reading of their miraculous survival from near starvation is a welcome counterbalance to this distressing but worthwhile book:
The Lykovs put up a fence
around the shoot and guarded it
zealously night and day
to keep off mice and squirrels.
At harvest time, the solitary spike
yielded 18 grains, and from this
they painstakingly rebuilt
their rye crop. (82-89)
Barry seems compelled to take the path of immanence to purge the violence. She says, in “craft (‘The man in the Hawaiian shirt’),” she tries “to describe the unimaginable / in a time and a place when sadly everything is imaginable” (49-50). She writes as if, by diving deep and exposing the wreckage, the violence could somehow be expelled. Can this poetry, any poetry, do that? As an afterword, Barry returns to the words of Aeschylus:
Where will it end?
…this murderous hate, this Fury? (1, 3)
Barry, Quan. Loose Strife. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.