In 2016, following a Guggenheim Fellowship, Tacoma-based poet Rick Barot decided to visit Madrid. He walked the boulevards, counted dahlias in royal gardens. The Naval Museum of Madrid was then hosting an exhibition about the Manila galleons, ships that from 1564 to 1815 sailed between the Philippine capital and Mexico, transporting chocolate, spices, jade, sapphires. By coincidence, Barot was already working on a book about the ships. In 2013 he’d jotted in his diary, “I want to write about oceans,” a line of thought that led—since he emigrated from the Philippines to San Francisco when he was 10—to the galleons.
Now, in Madrid, he took in the museum’s exhibition. “It was kind of this triumphalist narrative about Spanish technology and military might in the Pacific,” he says. In a smaller way, it examined “the places that they visited and eventually conquered.” One aspect stood out: a list of the 176 galleons. He copied down the names, thinking he’d write a poem in response.
In some sense, he did. In his new book, The Galleons—which he reads from on May 15 as part of Seattle Arts and Lectures—a poem recounts his visit: “At the naval museum I look into the face of Magellan show the / painting my face.” But the unadorned list is the centerpiece, the sixth poem in a titular series. “Santiago, 1564 / San Juan, 1564,” its opening stanza reads. It continues for just over eight pages. When I began reading, I expected a rote exercise. But as I sounded each name and date, the poem, in the context of the book, opened up. I had to temporally, physically, acknowledge each ship, and as I did the text became a sounding chamber for the book’s emotional and intellectual energies. I tried to reckon with the ships’ histories—and knew that I’d failed, since each name implicitly contains the people aboard, up to a thousand each, “sailors, mercenaries, officers, noblemen and their entourages, priests and missionaries, slaves that were called indios or chinos.” Many died during the six-month journeys.
Barot follows the book’s longest poem with its most aphoristic, “Galleons 7,” about his grandmother’s passing: “We had left the room to make a quiet / for the nurse to wash her in. / To go from us then, to decide, / as in a courtesy. Her soft nod away.” When he put the two poems side by side, Barot says, he realized the “juxtaposition between large, monumental, historical material [and] the personal grief was really what the book was about.”
Throughout the text that juxtaposition takes many forms. The other “Galleons” poems—10 in all, many of which have appeared in Poetry and The New Yorker—become vessels for Barot’s associations with the ships. In the first, he tells of his grandmother crossing the Pacific on a ship centuries after the galleons. He tries to suss out how she fits in the larger narrative: Her story “is a part / of history. No, her story is an illumination / of history, a matchstick lit in the black seam of time.” In the fourth he sees the ships in the strollers on the Brooklyn Promenade pushed by domestic workers, “women whose names once graced the actual galleons Rosario / Margarita Magdalena.”
Interspersed between these are other poems. His interests in visual art and literature run through the text, such that some pieces become verbal still lifes, mining the meanings in what he (and Marx, for that matter) calls “the world of things”: the imperial history, for instance, contained in the red clay cup in Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas. In another poem, he begins with his sudden attraction to a $175,000 designer punching bag, then veers to a Palestinian girl who carries a ladder to school daily. He does this throughout, letting the book’s disparate parts chime together—its veins of loss and colonialism and its capitalist echoes.
In part, Barot says this awakening to the political in his work has coincided with his time in this region. In 2005 he moved to Tacoma to teach at Pacific Lutheran University, where he now directs the MFA in Creative Writing. Previously he’d looked at art and writing as an aesthetic experience, all beauty and pleasure. Teaching at PLU, a school with a social justice focus, he says, has complicated his writing and teaching. Slowly, he’s realized that “art is not removed from all of the things that surround it.”
The region itself has slipped into the work too: the dissonances in Tacoma itself (a Whole Foods here, a Confederate flag there) or his poem, “The Marrow,” about seeing deer on San Juan Island. It stands as a brief peace, a sort of rejoinder to the rest of the book that immerses us in the world of things and their tangled histories. But here, “[b]ecause I was not sick or in need, they were only deer.”
► Rick Barot, May 15, Hugo House, $20
Updated on March 12 to reflect that the reading has been postponed to May 15 due to coronavirus concerns.