Wednesday, May 1, 2024

A Slight Thing, Happiness by Joan Baranow


A SLIGHT THING, HAPPINESS, Joan Baranow. Saint Julian Press, Houston, Texas, 2022, 70 pages, $18, paperback.

In A Slight Thing, Happiness, Joan Baranow bears witness to the fragile nature of happiness with a linguistic lens that celebrates the beauty found along its spectrum. It is the “small things with or without wings” that Baranow most celebrates, telling their stories with striking images that prowl and haunt this collection of passionately-crafted poems.

            Divided into four parts, the opening poem of each section could serve as its title. The first, “That Summer,” sets the stage for a baby—conceived, we later learn, with a surgical procedure. The poem opens with images of uncertainty:



            Cobalt. Rust. A heave of fog

            sliding across the sand.


            Fog in the manzanita.


            A flower like goldenrod put forth

            its yellow pearls.

            We posed nearby, where the wooden steps


            left the parking lot.

            The camera lens kept the edges in. Ocean. Cliffs.


            A coastal summer. Before the baby

            had being.

            The seeds inside the shrubbery were neutral.


These lines describe both an actual and an emotional landscape—“Fog in the manzanita” points toward the uncertainty of would-be parents “posing nearby,” their world view framing and focusing on a limited view, while “seeds inside” a human body only obey natural law. Other poems in this section trace the beginning and development of the child in vivid and gorgeous language. “Feeding the Son Born Premature,” the final poem in this section, is emblematic of Baranow’s insistently energetic diction, alive with growing tension and partial resolution. It opens with:

                                                …the story

            about the starving Chinese family

            in which the father chewed the few

            grains left, then put them

            into his baby’s mouth.

            I tell my son, “It’s good, good,”

            and move his hand to the fork,

            his solid 2-year weight on my lap.


And then the closing lines reveal the paradox of living in the present, aware that life can be taken at any moment:


            Once when home he slept so deeply

            I couldn’t wake him

            and shook him the way I shouldn’t,

            shouting his urgent name

            until he opened his aggrieved eyes.

            And so I watch, as I must,

            as he eats the gold rice

            glazed with fat, make sure he has

            as much as he wants.


             Section II begins with “An Old Story” about Snow White’s stepmother ingesting a heart—“Each piece tough and delicious, her body enter[ing] mine”—presaging the theme of death inherent in birth and life.  In “Close Calls,” Baranow’s five-month-old falls face down onto the floor, her four-year-old falls into a swimming pool: “Close calls, the fractions of accidents, / the young man brushing broken / windshield glass from his jacket, / the surgeon who nearly nicks the femoral nerve, / even I, seven months gone, days away from seizure, / saved by the OB who said, ‘It’s time / to get that baby out.’ Close calls.” Baranow’s virtuosic word choices are again on display in these closing lines:

            What are they but rehearsals for the real thing?

            Under the rush of gratitude,

            of falling to our shaking knees,

            we know—there will be a next time

            without reprieve or rescue, the cancer

            will split its capsule, the driver won’t swerve.

            On that day prayers are dust in your mouth.

            You’ll remember Job’s wife, curled weeping

            on a frayed rug in a corner of that cursed room.


The prayers as “dust in your mouth” is a layered image, bringing to language’s surface the burying of us all—“dust to dust”—and the return of the “frayed rug” brings back the earlier image of the infant falling onto the floor rug in the same way that humanity in its infancy fell from grace in Eden and bore the curse of death. In these poems, death may result from tragic human error or natural causes, or a combination of both. In “Diagnosis,” death “puncture[s] from inside, / tumors escalating / like pent gasses through O-rings, / organs exploding under the skin.” In both space craft and the hapless woman, death fully blooms: “Nothing to do but drive home / and make the terrible calls.”

Section III returns readers to the beauty of beauty (rather than Rilke’s beauty as “only the beginning of terror we are barely able to endure”) with the light-hearted poem, “Things He Said”—he being a son: “He said he’d run out of dream power. / He’d see if I had any extra. / He wanted to floor his room with sod / to plant bamboo / and why couldn’t he spread sod on the floor?” The poem ends with humorous lines spoken by the child beyond his years: “When his father said to watch out for those / Paris Hilton types, / he said, So you have some experience with that? // He said call me Inside the Rainbow.” The son who speaks in “Beautiful” also demonstrates a child’s ability to perceive beauty in what we adults take for granted. The child’s Blakean “doors of perception” have not yet clouded over.

            Section IV begins with “Traveling Through,” bringing forward all of the trials and difficulties in the midst of happinesses and resolves—not into ultimate bliss or even hope, but rather into acceptance. In “Sanctuary,” Baranow hints at how she learns from her mother’s efforts to find happiness: “You chose a place hard to get to—23 miles to the gulf from Old Town, past longleaf pines and wiregrass marsh.” After a description of the sparse interior—“Two rooms and a bathroom up on stilts. A hot pot for coffee”—and an ominous exterior full of alien beauty “with skittery palmetto bugs under the garbage bin. Spanish moss snapped on bald cypress, crepe myrtle, cabbage palms, your own curve of canal, a single banana tree. Rattlesnakes and cottonmouths. Magnolia blossoms like white doves nested among rusty leaves”—Baranow brings the poem to the climax of the book:

You believed people were made for happiness. My last visit there, you kept your cheer despite the growth, undiagnosed. After you died, we found Christmas gifts still wrapped among the clutter.


“Watching the Red Squirrels” underscores the main theme of the book, that we must live in the present because that’s all we have, and the beauty we find there includes happiness as one of the most precarious of states, albeit one of the best. Spending an afternoon with relatives, watching with amusement a squirrel attempting to get into a bird feeder, Baranow concludes:

It was one of those afternoons

that remains in memory.

A slight thing, happiness.


In A Slight Thing, Happiness, Baranow has given us in superb narrative lyrical poems a more complete picture of happiness than lesser poets would dare, without fear of sentimentality in celebrating poignant moments and without shying away from the underbelly of loss that eats away at all existence, making these poems all the more precious. The straightforward forms and organization of the book support the unblinking eye and unwavering voice of this poet writing in her fully developed voice. Reading this book will be no slight thing in the context of your lives—the living one and the writing one.

Joan Baranow is the author of In the Next Life, Living Apart, and two poetry chapbooks. Her collection, Reading Szymborska in a Time of Plague, won the 2021 Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. A fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and member of the Community of Writers, she founded and teaches in the Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Dominican University of CA. With her husband David Watts she produced the PBS documentary Healing Words: Poetry & Medicine. Her feature-length documentary, The Time We Have, presents an intimate portrait of a teenager facing terminal illness. 

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