The Art of Unearthing: A Review of Rick Barot’s The Galleons
Review by Jessica Gigot
Aldo Leopold writes, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” I was reminded of this quote as I read Rick Barot’s fourth poetry collection, The Galleons published by Milkweed Editions. Lyrical, inquisitive, and sometimes somber, Barot unearths a deeper wound created by the death of his grandmother, “Her soft nod away” as well as the immigrant experience of his Filipino-American family. Traversing historic truths and incisive observations of the ordinary, these poems are their own education, taking on isolation and identity, place and placelessness, and the lasting imprints of colonization.
“The poetry of the earth is a ninety-year-old woman/ in front of a slot machine in a Casino in California,” writes Barot in the opening stanza. Casinos are a world into themselves, artificially lit and abuzz with synthetic sounds, making it easy to lose track of all time and ecological orientation. Barot’s reference to Keats’ sonnet “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” in this context is curious. The narrator, presumably Barot, is sitting in a food court and studying this woman at her one-cent slot machine. She might just be here all day as “her money will go far into the afternoon.” Subtle and subversive this poem and the collection as a whole, offers an alternative interpretation of modern ecopoetics, one that may perhaps advocate for inclusion over dogma, compassion over consternation.
Ten poems (all titled “The Galleons” 1, 2, 3..etc) are interspersed throughout and collectively they reveal a complicated history. We learn that galleons were Spanish sailing ships, vessels essential to trade and, inevitably, exploitation. Barot writes in “The Galleons 2” that “research is mourning.” In this poem the reader is offered a long list of valuable items, “pearls, rubies, sapphire, bolts of cotton cloth” taken from the Philippines, Barot’s homeland, by the Spanish on these ships between 1564 and 1815. The list concludes with, “missionaries, and slaves that were called indios/ or chinos, nails, tools, iron hoops, fireworks, opals—an elegy?” Barot reminds us that decimation of a place and a people go hand-in-hand.
In present-day poems, like “Cascade 501,” Barot sits on a train listening to a nearby conversation, two men discussing their health—a recent bypass surgery, while also watching the outside world pass by. “Each thing looks new/ even when it is old and broken down,” he writes, one of many quotidian yet essential reflections throughout the book. The juxtaposition of the “broad silver of rivers” and “vines and ivies taking over” with the “summer backyard with the orange ball” is unexpected, and later in the poem Barot reports that he experiences “gusts of alertness” every time there is an “indication of the human” out the train window. Yet, he continues to look, searching for commonalities between the human and non-human scenery.
In “A Poem As Long As California” (a reference to Jack Spicer’s “Psychoanalysis: An Elegy), Barot attempts to define his own pastoral which is “reading in my car,/ in the supermarket parking lot” or “walking up Grand Avenue.” The most solitary of times offer the greatest opportunities for connection, regardless of the setting. For Barot, the “pastoral” in this poem seems to be more of a survey of interior versus exterior landscapes, which is brings up questions of access and authority. How can we see and appreciate the world outside of ourselves if we can’t look within?
Towards the end of this collection, Barot reconciles with his past in “The Galleons 10”:
I had a fate, it took me
across an ocean. It has taken half a life
to turn back and see
what it was I left behind.
This poignant poem leaves the reader with a strange blend of hope and long-standing ache. If we are to learn from the past, we must make amends with our daily grievances. If “research is mourning,” then sitting firmly in the present moment becomes a form of praise, honoring not what we have done or where we come from or what we have lost, but instead what we strive to be. The new world that we create every day.
With humility and precision, Barot guides us down a shadowy path of loss and self-exploration while offering an opportunity for resilience. The Galleons represent the courage to look and remember, to navigate the rough, emotional waters of grief and oppression. In this critical fourth book, Barot lets his readers see themselves as belonging to this strange Earth while acknowledging that those around us are, quite possibly, the teachers we didn’t know we needed.
Jessica Gigot is a poet, farmer, teacher and musician. She has a small farm in Bow, WA called Harmony Fields and her first book of poems, Flood Patterns, was published by Antrim House Books in 2015. Jessica’s writing appears in several publications, including Orion, Taproot, Gastronomica, and Poetry Northwest.