What We Did While We Made More Guns, by Dorothy Barresi
Review by John Venegas
Is there anything more human than the search for meaning in the face of destruction? That reflexive need to find answers, to make sense of violence and devastation, to find someone to blame. And what is worse? To find out that some terrible moment is senseless, unpredictable, and dispassionately cruel, or to find out that the moment was within control all along? I do not know, and I seriously doubt anyone could find a reliable consensus. But rarely do we find the kind of honest, visceral, and maddeningly intimate take on these ideas as is present in Dorothy Barresi’s What We Did While We Made More Guns. It is a poetry collection that is not only willing to perform a gloveless autopsy on our hypocrisy riddled corpses but one that refuses to let you sleep through it.
and knowing them for what they are,
I have crossed my arms against my chest – flesh, fat, gristle, bone –
as though I were a locked ward.
As though I controlled anything.
Deconstruction has become something of a buzzword in modern parlance, largely thanks to psuedo-intellectual circles adopting it as pre-fabricated defense against genuine criticism (see also “satire” and “free speech”). But I do not feel there is a more appropriate descriptive term for What We Did than deconstruction because the collection is a thoroughly meticulous breakdown of the component parts of our modern cultural situation, alongside a shockingly detailed analysis of their causal circumstances. This is more than a call for an end to violence. Barresi is holding out a cancer that has metastasized throughout American society. The worship of violence as a paradoxical vehicle for peace; white heterosexual religious patriarchy; gluttonous, exploitative consumerism; superficial, bandwagoning psuedo-altruism complete with ephemeral attention spans; all of it is laid out and bare, sometimes quivering on their own and sometimes bleeding into one another in a viscous mess. And it is made all the more necessarily uncomfortable by the pain in the voice(s) of the speaker(s). The tone pervading the work is one that hates the very real necessity of its work. For every incision into patriarchy, there is fragment of a loving paternal memory or dream that might have been. For every critique of violence, there is an acknowledgment of the very human rage and fear that surround threats to our selves. The collection understands that the horrors we face are born out of real emotion, all the while avoiding the pathetic “both-sides”-ism that equivocates cruelty.
Future times face us. The times following them are further in the future, but all future times follow the present. This is why the weeks to follow will be the same as the weeks ahead.
To be sure, such a display of artistic ambition is automatically setting up its own obstacles in terms of accessibility. The fact is many people, even well-meaning people, do not day in and day out have the stomach for this kind of self-examination. But Barresi makes a few powerful concessions in What We Did without compromising message or impact, particularly in the form of language. The poetry presented here is density without pretentiousness; reflective without being obtuse. It works with a confidence and determination that both assumes the reader can keep up and takes its time in making its point. Different structures and cadences are at play, which provide flavorful variation and allow the poems to stand on their own rather than become swallowed by the whole. To put it simply, the poetry is lovely to read, by eye or by ear. Couplets fill the mouth and roll around smoothly. In an uncountable number of moments, you are given just enough time to appreciate how every little part of a stanza is put together before the dramatic significance dawns on you.
Hey creed feast, Mr. Sheer Transplendency,
is that you
The strongest part of this construction, for me, lies in Barresi’s care with single lines of the poem. I find this to be something of an underappreciated aspect of modern poetry, or at least something that has a tendency to get lost in well-meaning attempts to convey elaborate concepts or shape unconventional structure. As you read, I highly recommend taking the occasional moment to pause and re-read almost any given line at random, because I am willing to bet you will find meaning there that you missed on the first pass. This is what I meant earlier when I referred to density without pretentiousness. You can very easily pass through and over a line like “by the sun’s radioactive choir boy blare.”, only to come back to it a moment or a day later and get an entirely different reaction out of yourself. This in turn lends itself to another underappreciated feature of poetry, re-readability, which is no small thing in the face of some of the subject matter.
When he died, rumors skewed autoerotic.
There were no funeral orations.
When answering the existential questions forced upon us by mass shooting in schools or domestic white terrorism or rampant violence against women and sexual minorities or mass incarceration of people of color or the murder of innocents (domestic and foreign) out of bloodthirst, What We Did provides us with a profound example to emulate. Just as the poetry rolls up its sleeves and plunges its fingers into the blood-soaked mess, so too does it look at us and demand we have the courage to do the same. It is a poignant reminder that there are no sidelines anymore, if such things ever really existed in the first place. It insists that we recognize at least part of the causes of these problems as human greed and fear, obligating us to both recognize the humanity in those who oppose us and helping us to see the fragile constructs upon which exploitative churches are built.
What We Did While We Made More Guns is available now through the University of Pittsburgh Press.