Rick Barot is the winner of the 2016 PEN Open Book Award for Chord. Barot’s complex, elegant, and observant poems confront the role of language in addressing the concerns of our world. Spanning a variety of subjects, this collection is intimate, musical, and thoughtful. The following are three poems from the collection.

—Consorcia Alvarez Barot, 1913-2005

1. Annunciation

It is not always joy
             that is announced to you
in the ordinary light.

Not always a wing
              or a flood of new knowledge

delivering its atoms of change
to your body.
             Sometimes it is

a wound delivered,
just as plainly as in those
             paintings, her head tilted

up or down, in an angle of
             resignation and responsibility.

No fanfare in the room
other than some structure inside you
             made flat

by what you have received,
             the heart a putty-colored

folding chair knocked
to the ground.
             And the room itself, emptied,

this is part of the recognition.
             The room a wound,
             the light a wing on the floor,

the atoms of dust
             in the shaft. And the quiet,
that is grief’s appetite.


2. Grasshopper

it was in the middle of the night
the middle of dying     the houses slept
but we did not sleep     it was not
dark     it was not dark

                       memory not so much a plow
                       not the fierce direction     into
                       the layered ground     but like light’s
                       refraction     light breaking

we surround the hole of the
room of dying     we surround her mouth
the hole of clear air     the portal
of waiting     watching the hole

                        the light breaking against bright
                        surfaces     then springing on others
                        on leaf and on face     on
                        water     gray as a breastplate

light breaking on the oxygen tank    on the
instruments of     medical measure 
and above us    the dresser’s figurine
Mary     her dress pink as a mouth

                       light breaking against the daughter
                       taking a pulse     another praying against
                       a corner     in the breath’s
                       duration     in the indrawn breath

why not see it simply as lost     blood
pressure     the breath ceasing
one unreleased gasp     why not see it
as body     parting with its function

                       her face is     a fall leaf parchment
                       I am writing     her face
                       I am writing     a parchment love
                       the parchment     I am writing upon

and no alarm at all     with her stopped breath
something like a cheer     going up
among us     the accomplishment
of an arrival    the cheer and wailing

                        and memory now not so much catching
                        as caught     in the labyrinth
                        designed like a thumb’s whorls
                        caught     while in wonder’s order

then there was the speck they
saw     in the room afterwards     the grasshopper
green live contraption     contriving grief
the grief that is    green in December


3. Threnody

Chord that is your satin purple dress, love’s good synesthesia.

Chord that is your classroom’s chalked board, its elementary figures.

Chord that is letters, that is photo albums, that is rosaries, that is money.

Chord that is the lion-gold hills along the Central Valley, our I-5 songs.

Chord that is your young husband, outlived longer than he lived.

Chord that is a photograph of you among tulips, the field now no field.

Chord that is time, that is children, that is houses, that is countries.

Chord that is your name, conjugation for the sun and for consolation.

Chord that is your throat, its Sunday hymns unabashed, unstricken.


Read more from the finalists of the 2016 PEN Open Book Award

Read other excerpts from the 2016 PEN Literary Award winners and finalists here.