Review by Sara Cahill Marron
You Do Not Have To Be Good is a body and a planet, the poems are a guide through the universe of pills, therapies, failures of western medicine, and the magic memory carries within it, “small scraps of song” that elevate the dark hallways of the mind into poetry. Madeleine Barnes describes ordinary pain, social constructs, and then turns them to dust. The poems are unlimited. Feeling for the new galaxies with their iron ores, metals, natural materials and elements, the poet leads us through age, tenderly.
Some chapters are short, containing one poem. Some pull in other players— the poet’s parents, strangers observed in the park, doctors, scalpels—but the connective tissue always transforms into lightweight bird bones that may fly away if you leave them too long: “feather in a coma”, “their wingbeats / tapping out / a song”.
The first section, “You Do Not Have To Be Earthly”, contains poems dripping with gold, bronze socks, “an amber glove”, “a lilac cube”, and an “avalanche of electric violet”— creating a shimmering fabric which begs to be touched. “Crinet, granguard, shoulder plates” cover the curls of a vulnerable figure whose visor is lifted to be kissed at the end of “Forty Black Ships”. We are prepared for the battle of pain and suffering to come, “I said: take my spears and black-tipped arrows. / Run toward your mothers, and her mother/ I will follow soon when I find the right plates.”
We are encouraged to seek connection early on, though the poet reminds us to go, armored, for fear of what those who love us most might do. In “Perennials”, the body begins to show its frailty, the ability to leak liquids and become broken, paralyzing language, but inspiring the poet’s lyric in the viewing: “I said nothing because everything / fell apart in my mouth in piles of razors / that severed language, my only tether to earth.”
Barnes asks us for a close read, wrapping words in triplicate around shivering shoulder blades to hear the secret pulsing within: “Vulnerary” blends the natural and supernatural “not-now” song of egret wing beats to the “what-now” heartbeat whisper in the section “I Will Tell You Everything.” Mixing comforting learned stories of Thoreau from the classroom, a teacher uses his power to sexualize the female, bringing the speaker to a field “where he was living like Thoreau.” In a nod to the struggle with modern therapies in other sections, this poem foreshadows, healing, “still sleeps somewhere / in those woods.” Memory reverberates in the bodies each poem creates.
Continuing to mythologize the body by winging it, letting it fly, the speaker pulls herself underwater. Echoed later in poems like “Trying to Swim”, preparing for the death of a parent, learning to swim, travelling, and recounting one’s life in a single moment during the crash of a wave. The single-poem chapter “Smallness”, starved of anything but the words, washing themselves down the page in steps magnetized by a metal spoon holding hunger instead of food, these poems are lead us to the cacophony of a dream in motion, deafening in their silence, drowned; cut; smashed.
What heals us? Tattoos? Shelter? In remembering what the poem’s body is, thrown in the wind, the poet makes a “room for the poems that crash / into windowpanes, or the poems that are slow to come into focus”. They are healing, like the machines that pull the poet into them, MRIs resonating and echoing are a skull, sanitized memories adorned by ironic markers like the pen that bleeds purple into her hair, which she then washes out. The book is iron, metal and diamond, anchoring the reader to the embryo and blood coursing through its lines. The speaker has stared into the mirror, in grief and self-appraisal, evaluating the fragile bones that build the house of memory: “two lovers kneel between two mirrors. / they are trading bones. They mean for you to see it.”
“Dreamscape With Embryo” pulls the “grape-sized” life the poet has nurtured, perspective as “a drop in the ocean” appropriately placed in the universe as something to be loved and cherished, a strong thing—“iron-infused.” Yet, malleable and still flesh, “little fleck of gold / tell me what you want,” a love song to the shaking and sleeping; loving of something lost but seen.
The death and grief in the latter half of the collection pull together the work effortlessly, allowing the speaker to translate her perceptions into a curation of ultimate meaning. To view is to preserve. Meaning imbued by the poet, she tells us, creates healing, suffering, or eternity: “darkness translates into / magnificent gold, Byzantine coins in a row.”
Barnes’s You Do Not Have to Be Good is a telescope through which you will find that which you love, or grieve, most intensely. I invite you to read for yourself, to find the poem that burns the brightest for you: “to contradict / a death, one must believe they can / still hear a sunrise”.
Trio House Press, 9781949487046,
Publication Date: May 1, 2020 Paperback
List Price: 16.00*
Madeleine Barnes is a writer, visual artist, Mellon Foundation Humanities Public Fellow, and English PhD student at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She serves as Poetry Editor at Cordella Magazine, co-curates the Lunar Walk Poetry Series, and teaches at Brooklyn College. Her debut full-length poetry collection, You Do Not Have To Be Good, was selected as a winner of Trio House Press’ open reading period to be published in 2020. She is the author of three chapbooks: Women’s Work, forthcoming from Tolsun Books in 2021, Light Experiments, Porkbelly Press’ first ever zine-style photo chapbook, and The Mark My Body Draws in Light. She is the recipient of a John Woods Scholarship to study poetry in the Czech Republic, a New York State Summer Writers Institute Fellowship, two Academy of American Poets Poetry Prizes, the Princeton Poetry Prize (judged by Paul Muldoon and C.K. Williams), the Gertrude Gordon Journalism Prize, the Three Rivers Review Poetry Prize, and a Lost and Found Light Relief Grant. She was named an Emerging Writer by the Poetry Ireland Introduction Series, and Brooklyn Poets Poet of the Week. Her poem “To Charge Forward” was featured in Frontier’s “Exceptional Poetry from Around the Web” series alongside poetry by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith.
Sara Cahill Marron, a relocated New York poet living in Washington D.C., is the author of Reasons for the Long Tu’m (Broadstone Books, 2018), Nothing You Build Here, Belongs Here (Kelsay Books 2021), and Call Me Spes (MadHat Press 2022), and is the Associate Editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly. Her work has been published widely in literary magazines and journals such as Gravel, Atlas + Alice, Meniscus, Cordella, Newtown Literary, South Florida Poetry Journal, Golden Walkman, Lunch Ticket, and other anthologies, available at www.saracahillmarron.com.