Winner of the 2000 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize
2002 finalist in poetry, Society of Midland Authors
Quan Barry’s stunning debut collection has been compared to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel for the startling complexity of craft and the original sophisticated vision behind it. In these poems beauty is just as likely to be discovered on a radioactive atoll as in the existential questions raised by The Matrix.
Asylum is a work concerned with giving voice to the displaced—both real and fictional. In “some refrains Sam would have played had he been asked” the piano player from Casablanca is fleshed out in ways the film didn’t allow. Steven Seagal, Yukio Mishima, Tituba of the Salem Witch Trials, and eighteenth-century black poet Phillis Wheatley also populate these poems.
Barry engages with the world—the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the legacy of the Vietnam war—but also tackles the broad meditative question of the individual’s existence in relation to a higher truth, whether examining rituals or questioning, “Where is it written that we should want to be saved?” Ultimately, <I>Asylum</I> finds a haven by not looking away.
Composed in an oblique, postmodern style, the poems in Barry's first book reveal a dysfunctional global society where young women are still circumcised, a teenager is near bludgeoned to death in her own bed, African Americans are routinely brutalized, and Siamese twins somehow survive the horrible after-effects of Agent Orange. For Barry, too, is a survivor, as she confesses in her brilliant autobiographical poem, "Child of the Enemy," the centerpiece of this collection. The poet empathizes with all the abused and marginalized characters in the book because she is an American with "shame/on the dark meat" of her face. Her remarkable poems are studded with allusions to the Bible, Bob Dylan, Osip Mandelstam, and Yukio Mishima. The titles are dazzling, running the gamut from mathematical equations to cartoon characters. Barry holds these disparate poems together with her strongly original voice, her carefully nuanced tone, and her surprising metaphors, like the "blue scripts" of rivers. Highly recommended for large public libraries and academic libraries.
Asylum is an iimpressive tour de force not often seen in a first book. The poems are graceful and stark, composed with a master's sense of lyric and form. If Barry is one of the representative "unackowledged legislators," then we can count on having somewhere to turn during whatever difficult times may come."
This is Barry's first book, but it won't be her last; this former Wallace Stegner Fellow has talent to burn.
The consistency of her language—private, enigmatic, and urgent—carries the collection, making it a remarkable debut.
There is no other way to say it: This is a knockout first book in the scope of its breadth and vision. Barry's poems are fusions of light and darkness, and her skillful use of prose passages, short lyrics, and longer narratives is stunning. ... Asylum should be read by a wide audience and noted as one of the top books of 2001.
Some will find Barry's subjects—genocidal war, pornography, the slaughter of Thanksgiving turkeys—disconcerting, but she treats them with a candor, persistence, and tonal control that aims to question and comprehend rather than simply indict or dismiss. An engrossing collection.
Quan Barry is the author of three previous poetry collections: Asylum, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize; Controvertibles; and Water Puppets, winner of the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry. She is also the author of the novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born. Barry has received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in both poetry and fiction. She is professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.learn more