Emily Bludworth de Barrios
H_NGM_N Books ($15.95)
by Ashleigh Lambert
The glorious trouble with being human is that “the self is in fact / just loose. / / One works to define a context / for one’s life.” The alternative to pursuing this difficult work? “To be bigger and older and draped / in knowledge and skin. / / Having yet to have undergone / the great transformation.” Figuring out what this work entails, and why some of us have an easier time of it than others, is at the heart of Splendor, the first full-length poetry collection by Emily Bludworth de Barrios.
The speaker’s self-building work requires her to engage with feelings and questions that will be familiar to many of her readers: envy, ambition, whether to reproduce, how to love, the proper place of work in one’s life. These all turn out to be facets of one overriding concern: how to grapple with privilege. If that induces eye-rolls, consider the skill with which the poet presents the problem. Early in the book, the speaker longs for “the sense / of unearned accomplishment. / / That is something at which / one cannot fail.” Although it is “beguiling,” she rejects this cheap facsimile of achievement. But her familiarity with it leaves a lingering smudge of guilt.
Another possible definition of privilege is put forth later: “Empathy which one stands there holding / no place to put it.” Or maybe privilege is “my general expectation of being / pleased all the time.” Or perhaps it is simply moving through one’s life with the sense of oneself as “I who have been given so much it was not clear / where the world ended and I began.”
Eventually, a claustrophobic affect is achieved, as the speaker circles around and around her good fortune, taking its measure, testing its strength, but unable to either immerse herself in it or to flee. Her evident desire to acknowledge her unwarranted luck leaves her curiously unable to look beyond it, to consider what comes after acknowledgment. At times she lapses into a peculiar and self-congratulatory kind of nostalgia, one which assumes that generic “people” in some unspecified past didn’t have as active an interior life as the conspicuously confused modern generation. She misses “the old people / who are real grown ups,” for whom “regular work” smoothed “Shards of inadequacy and disappointment / No space for a full evening of self-doubt.”
Perhaps this nostalgia is born of an anxiety about how to act in the present. The speaker in these poems does crave clarity about how to respond to the world’s claims on her:
I know with my whole mind
I don’t think about these things just right.
Why bring it up then.
Because I inherited a life
for which I am grateful.
But such luck, no matter how reverently examined, cannot hold. As the speaker catalogs her good fortune, there is the growing sense that a disaster is brewing in the wings. And when finally “the bad thing really happens,” the speaker’s fragility is replaced with humility and wisdom as she is forced to draw upon her inner reserves.
Bludworth de Barrios is at her best when explicating desires we cannot be proud of or accommodate. In Splendor, she infuses with radiance that which we tend to keep opaque.