By Emily Bludworth de Barrios

(H_NGM_N BKS, 2015)*

Emily Bludworth de Barrios’ poem “All Souls’” was selected as an editor’s choice in the 2013 Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry

splendor - philadelphia storiesIn her 2015 full-length poetry collection Splendor, Emily Bludworth de Barrios grapples with morality and virtue as qualities at odds with a contemporary, consumerist lifestyle. She uses lines from Horace Walpole’s 1764 Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto as the titles of the individual poems, a move that highlights the distinctions between righteousness and vice. An online summary of Otranto suggests that its central antagonist, Manfred, is consumed by greed, lust, and fear of a prophesied fall from power. The object of his lust, the princess Isabella, rejects Manfred in favor of the noble young peasant Theodore. Similarly, the reader is asked to consider her values in relation to her privilege.

Titles such as “are the devils themselves in league against me?” and “were tempestuously agitated, and nodded thrice, as if bowed by some invisible wearer” create a verbal history — the conflicts here are not new. The juxtaposition of archaic lines from Walpole and Bludworth de Barrios’ contemporary tone creates friction: as Walpole presents clear good and bad characters, Bludworth de Barrios ranks impulses along a spectrum. We cannot navigate today’s world without some moral struggle. In “May the saints guard thee,” she writes, “There are effortless persons,/and you are not one of them.”

One of the obstacles to virtue in these poems is the speaker’s desire for comfort. In “I would pray to heaven to clear up your uncharitable surmises,” Bludworth de Barrios writes, “I always knew I would/marry a rich man.” Through a swirl of short lines, she points to the literary sources of her expectations. She amends her earlier statement:

It was not wealth I was
after but more like acclaim or arrival.
How beguiling is the sense
of unearned accomplishment (10).

The accumulation of things: “You almost love the things you own./With a fitful, envious love” (“were tempestuously agitated…,” 15), expands to include the accumulation of people: “Friends like accessories…” (“and she was not sorry,” 19). The self expects to be always central:

All of the advertisements are like you you you.
Like this coffee travelled 1000 miles
to be the two perfect inches
of your espresso (“any increase of tenderness to me,” 17).

The speaker of these poems knows what is right and just – and knows the effort required to maintain that rectitude.

The voice in these poems strives to navigate an evolving moral landscape while seeking to insulate herself from — or to anticipate — critique. We are “infants…. flying/across the sky” without anchor: “With/a crooked list of priorities” (“If thou art of mortal mould,” 75). In the poem “I! My Lord!” Bludworth de Barrios considers the upright conscience that knows better:

Your ideal self has always been
the ideal self is sudden and kind (58).

Graceful and bracing, Bludworth de Barrios’ Splendor urges close examination of the values and virtues we celebrate (or ignore) in ourselves and our surroundings. If we can read the literature of the past as a template, we must learn to read our own stories and recognize our own heroism and villainy. — Courtney Bambrick