by Stephanie L. Johnson
Splendor by Emily Bludworth De Barrios, published in March of last year through H_NGM_N Books, allows you to witness a poet’s process of continual self-discovery and consider the burgeoning questions about life in trying to become the “Better Self.” Her work feels optimistic while remaining conscious of the difficulty of being human, exploring anxiety and insecurity, and ultimately existential doubt. She does so, however, in a manner that feels healthy, in a way that gives the darkness a special beauty.
The titles of her poems all come from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764, which, for those unfamiliar, is a lavishly romantic and dramatic story involving princesses locked in towers, underground labyrinths, and functions of the supernatural. De Barrios’ poetry contrasts these dramatic themes. Her writing rather encapsulates life as she and her readers live it. Her themes involve introspection and the development and questioning of values. Her words read as an artful explication of ideas you may have already considered and, if not, that you wish you had. (What’s the meaning of identity? What is it to be good?) Nothing in her poetry reads as fluffy entertainment in the way The Castle of Otranto does. But I think there was something very purposeful in the decision to juxtapose her work with Walpole’s.
At the time of Walpole’s publication, scholars were considering the responsibility of literature, debating whether works should illustrate life or be largely imaginative. The Castle of Otranto clearly represents the imaginative approach, which contrasts the themes presented in Splendor. Walpole’s allure is dependent on sensationalism, while De Barrios’ charm relies on relatability. Perhaps her purpose in alluding to The Castle of Otranto was to remind us of these two purposes in art—art as a means of holding a mirror to our life vs art as a means of experiencing places and people to which we would never otherwise be exposed. Most classically great literature incorporates both of these functions, and by directly contrasting her words with Walpole’s, De Barrios hints at a similar effect in her own work.
However, this isn’t to say the titles feel at odds with the poetry that follows. Often the titles fit strikingly well with the subject of each individual work. In fact, “Yet her own situation could not help finding its place in her thoughts.” and “It is piety alone that can distinguish us from the dust from whence we sprung.” could both easily follow the last lines of those pieces as if De Barrios had written them herself. And those titles that don’t fit as effortlessly offer a new frame for the work, forcing the reader to reevaluate her initial understanding. For example, on a first reading, the poem “Follow me; dark and dismal as it is” reads with a kind of “we’re all stardust” hopefulness, but, when considered alongside the title, the now pronounced exhaustion and confusion at being a singular identity muddle the initial, superficial optimism. This form of complexity is present in nearly every poem.
In fact her poetry reeks of wisdom, an “odor” she acknowledges we must all actively work at interpreting and embracing. Values are not so clearly right and wrong, and the difficult process of sifting through those that are forced on us by our culture or by our mind in an effort to discover a “context for one’s life” is a cyclical theme in the collection. Yet the values expressed in her poetry seem solid– encouraging curiosity, questioning, and calmness. They sprout from an acknowledgement of her privilege—her financial privilege and her privilege in being loved. And though her readers may not enjoy these same privileges, her poetry coaxes readers to consider where in their own lives they may have experienced “unearned luck.” It’s the kind of poetry you want your child to read. It encourages the kind of characteristics you’d want them to establish.
In this collection, every poem, even those that involve her personal story, include a moment or a thought to which readers can connect. Her trip to Bolivia requires you to consider a time you didn’t know yourself. Her trip to Cairo requires you to consider your advantages in life. De Barrios shares her experience with pregnancy, so some of her contemplations concern what it is to be a mother and raise a child. But many of those reflections easily translate to how to raise ourselves—how to grow to be a better person. And her experience with miscarriage forces readers to consider death, whether it is that of a loved one or of our own eventual end.
Her poetry is deeply personal but strikingly relatable. There’s no great secret in her writing to draw out and mull over, but for that reason, her writing is special in its accessibility. Her poetry is something you can easily and routinely revisit; like a favorite song, her writing mirrors and empathizes with your difficult feelings and doubts. She makes us feel like we’re not alone.