“This is No Accident”: A Review of Quan Barry’s Loose Strife
Loose Strife, by Quan Barry, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015, 72 pages,
Every so often arguments crop up in journals, among writing groups, and now on social media, about whether ekphrasis is a “lesser” form of poetry because it relies on art that already exists for inspiration. The gist of the critique is that someone else—the painter, sculptor, or perhaps filmmaker—did the hard work in coming up with original idea, and that the poet is “just” reading the work of art, performing something more akin to an act of gussied up art criticism than a divinely inspired reading of the world. Given that I write for DIALOGIST, a journal that showcases visual art, poetry, and criticism, the idea that these forms aren’t inherently in conversation with one another, that we should want to build illusory walls around them, strikes me as bizarre. Ekphrasis responds to art as part of the world, not a mere reflection of it, and the best ekphrasis helps us not only look at art anew, but better understand why we make art in the first place.
Quan Barry’s latest poetry collection, Loose Strife, is a short book wherein “[m]any of the poems…were inspired by the 2012 gallery exhibition Loose Strife… a collaboration between the poet Quan Barry and the visual artist Michael Velliquette.” Interestingly, this explanatory note doesn’t come until after all of the poems, and even then it’s only part of a list of more traditional notes acknowledging sources of inspiration, including a line from the Diamond Sutra, a GQ article, some wisdom from Edna St. Vincent Millay. Also, the book itself contains no images from the exhibition, which was mounted at Edgewood College in Madison, WI. Velliquette’s website features pictures from Loose Strife, and photographer Jim Escalante provides more evidence of what the show looked like and how Barry’s work was featured, but Barry’s collection initially allows (or perhaps asks) the poems to stand on their own.
It’s difficult to know, then, the nature of relationship between the poems in Loose Strife and the images from the exhibition. What does it mean for poems to be “inspired by” collaboration? What came first, the image or the word? And to what extent should we read the poems through the lens Velliquette provides when he explains the title of the show:
…the title of the exhibition stems from a translation of the Greek name Lysimachus (Λυσίμαχος), the name describing one who makes war, who literally “looses battle” on the world. In this context the works in the exhibition are loosely inspired by the brutality of Aeschylus’ ancient Greek tragedy The Oresteia, an archetypal narrative of internecine conflict.
In framing Loose Strife the way she does, Barry sets up several distinct reading experiences. The first time most readers go through the collection without the knowledge of the scope of the project, whether picking out poems at random or proceeding in sequence, Loose Strife feels like a refreshingly accessible book of experimental poetry. The physical shapes of the poems vary, and one distinct feature is extra spaces between some of the words. In most of the poems, it looks something like this. But in “ars,” one of the twelve poems (of thirty-two) in the collection not titled “loose strife,” space is not just negative, it is negated, or in this case, redacted like a classified government document. The thick black bars bury parts of the story. Fittingly, the poem ends with the line “This is no accident.”
Loose Strife’s formal experimentation is crucially not a way of distancing the reader from the content of the poems. Indeed, unlike a lot of poetry that plays with our sense of what a poem should look like, Barry’s work still shows a commitment to the line as a unit of conveying something knowable, though it’s not without mystery. The poem “loose strife (‘When I first learned’)” is one of the most visually interesting in the collection, but also tells a coherent story of learning about death and American racism. The three vertical columns correspond to three Japanese characters referenced at the end, presumably the kanji for “death,” though we never are told exactly what word the speaker is describing, making the final line, “second thought,” all the more resonant.*
Once a reader knows that Loose Strife is more than a traditional collection of poems, a new reading experience, a second thought, emerges. We can look at available pictures and see how Barry’s words interact with Velliquette’s sculptures. We can reread the book with an aesthetic in mind, a color palette of black, white, red, and a little yellow. We can hunt for clues as to how the two artists involved may have influenced each other. We can think about what we’ve missed by not having experienced the actual exhibition. These are ekphrastic thoughts that create a new text in conversation with the one we hold in our hands, and this is even before we consider Loose Strife as a book about both the wars that surround us and consume our hearts. There’s another text there, and again, I don’t think it’s accidental that Barry finishes the book with an epigraph from Aeschylus:
Where will it end?
Where will it sink to sleep and rest,
this murderous hate, this Fury?
The end of Loose Strife contains several new beginnings for readers. It asks to be read again and again with our eyes looking in different corners of the work. But beyond demanding our engagement for more than one sitting, this continuous unfolding makes Loose Strife an appeal to create art in response to other art so that we might actually channel this Fury into something productive.
*The writer of this review asks that readers, especially Quan Barry, forgive his approximations of the visual elements in the poems.