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A Review of Quan Barry's Asylum and Controvertibles

In Quan Barry’s two poetry collections, Asylum (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001) and Controvertibles (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004), readers are introduced to incredibly dense poetic microcosms where science, mathematics, monologues, and pop culture all intertwine in amazing variations and lyric shapes.  

One of the most powerful poems from Asylum is “child of the enemy,” which is split up into nine parts.  I reprint the ninth piece, “Napalm,” here in its entirety:

IX.  Napalm

I have come to realize the body is its own pyre, that degree
rises from within, the fatty acids a kind of kindling.
Like a scientist in a lab, this much I have established, blood jelled
like gasoline, the years spread before me like a map
pinned with targets, where I’m raging even now.  
It works both ways.  Clear the forests to see your enemies
and your enemies see you clearly.  Like all effective incendiaries,
I won’t only bloom where I’m planted.  

“child of the enemy” functions as one of the more autobiographically influenced pieces.  Quan Barry is of Amerasian descent (African American/Vietnamese American) and was one of the young children airlifted out of Vietnam during Operation Babylift.  She was raised in Western Massachusetts, but born in Saigon.  In “Napalm,” the lyric “I” clearly speaks of the flammable liquid that was popularized as a destructive device during the Vietnam War.  This poem provides a strong metaphorical connection between the way in which a body operates and the way in which napalm burns.  Napalm could be used to “clear the forests” to root out Vietcong guerillas, but at the same time, for the lyric speaker, whom one might identify in this case as being closely connected to the author, can also gaze back.  She is, as it were, a “child of the enemy.”  In this conflation between napalm and Vietnamese diasporic subject (perhaps orphaned or given up for adoption), the lyric I although having been born or “planted” in Vietnam does not necessarily bloom there, but certainly finds a foothold in the poetic microcosm.  Indeed, throughout “child of the enemy,” the lyric speaker unmasks the grotesque nature of war and consequently “rages” with her “blood jelled” producing an inner fire that mobilizes the collection forward.

In other areas of Asylum, Barry chooses to consider the problematics of victimhood in both U.S. and international contexts.  In “plague,” a sequence of four poems, the lyric speaker recounts the nature of sexual transmitted infections, specifically focusing on the Tuskegee controversy in which African American servicemen were knowingly infected with Syphilis.  “triage” depicts five different perspectives on the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam, wherein the plight of conjoined siblings Duc and Viet, looms large.  Particularly chilling is Barry’s choice to include one section with scientific data concerning the toxic effects of Agent Orange.  

Controvertibles (the title is inspired by a line from Emily Dickinson’s poetry) is completely structured around analogies and oppositions.  For instance, “the seahorse as transubstantiation” seems to suggest the divine beauty of the titular marine animals.  The poem opens with this lyric “A full moon & all along the reef’s spine pairs of small monsters are dancing, their fused jaws & stalked eyes argentine, refractory, the delicate pipettes of their mouths heraldic” (4).  One notices again the scientific predilection in Barry’s descriptions as the speaker describes the seahorses oral orifices as “delicate pipettes” (chemistry) and the lightness of their eyes as “refractory” (physics).  Towards the conclusion of the poem, the speaker asks philosophically, “When such things are gone what do we celebrate?” as if to interject an animal rights ethic.  This topic of humane treatment toward human and nonhuman “others” will reappear again and again. Again in relation to animals, the poem, “the last elephant in Burundi as vessel,” augments the environmentally conscious poetics at play.  Once again, the lyric speaker asks difficult, existencially grounded questions: “Where do we go when we die? What are our lives w/o the possibility of a heaven?” (26).  While such queries might seem potentially cliché, in the context of capitalism which creates commodities out of only certain body parts of animals ]“All these years two hundred, a thousand elephants at a time left w/o faces” (26)], they achieve a different prominence.  Controvertibles is in some ways more confrontational in its poetic subjects as Barry chooses to meditate upon the Holocaust, The Great Flood of 1919, Jim Crow era racism, and Indian purdah all within a spate of seven poems.  This poetry collection also seems much more mobile and global in its scope, moving from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico in one poem to Africa not long after.  

Occasionally, the poetry will return to tropes fleshed out in Asylum.  For instance, “Richard Nixon’s 1972 Christmas Bombing Campaign as Gospel,” ironically considers the timing of these bombings, especially as the United States was already suffering from a public relations quagmire related to wartime atrocities in Vietnam.  Here is an excerpt:

How the Word came hammering to earth.

Or the story we tell ourselves this time of year—that some of us were foundlings & that some of us were given up freely.

Imagine scouring the countryside for even the smallest hamlet, a clean place to rest & begin.

Or the forests scorched & utterly wrecked.  Or the full rabbit moon like a grenade.

What was rising in the east?  What is it about this season & the innocent? (48).

The “religion” of warfare is related through its utter destruction and ability to leave children as “foundlings” or as those that cannot be cared for, where children “were given up freely.”  In this reference to “we” and “us,” a plurality of speakers emerges calling attention to the plight of refugees, orphans, and survivors, seeking asylum.  The line, “Or the full rabbit moon like a grenade” is particularly provocative as it relates how celestial bodies commonly rendered as aesthetically beautiful are transformed during wartime.  The “full rabbit moon” glows and exposes those perhaps desiring shelter and anonymity from firepower and bombing.  The title of this poem is therefore embodies a challenge, rather than as an assent.  We are reminded then again of the poem “Napalm” that opened this review.  If the body exists as an incendiary that blooms far from where it is planted, so too does Barry’s poetry, exuding its own phosphoric heat.  

Quan Barry adds to the growing subcategory of Vietnamese American poetry, a list that although somewhat short, nevertheless is already distinguished in talent and poetic approaches.  Barry’s dense, lyrical, and semi-confessional poems do dialogue well with the diasporic approaches explored by Barbara Tran and le thi diem thuy (“shrapnel shards on blue water” being widely anthologized).  Where Barry chooses to make pop culture references whether it be to The Matrix, Blade Runner, or Gladiator, one is reminded of the playful poetry of Linh Dinh.  Like Mong-lan, Barry chooses to place Vietnam as just one nodal point among an array of political geographies.  And the elegiac nature of some of her poems certainly parallels the melancholic work of Truong Tran.  

Asylum and Controvertibles are both estimable and profound achievements of lyric insight and philosophical meditation.  

Buy the book here:
http://www.upress.pitt.edu/BookDetails.aspx?bookId=35372
http://www.upress.pitt.edu/BookDetails.aspx?bookId=35510


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