Madeleine Barnes’ debut collection You Do Not Have to Be Good, which was published by Trio House Press this year, takes the unspoken rules of living and turns them into gentle but firm poems. With images of space scattered like constellations throughout the collection, as well as the occasional medicinal term, it isn’t just about what one does not have to be—the potential of what they can be is also explored. Even if one doesn’t understand the nuances of such jargon, it is still impactful and striking, an inner glimpse into a compassionate world. In this world envisioned by Barnes, we do not have to always conform to a standard; rebellion should be in our hearts; that there is hope within acts and words of vulnerability.
The book is set up in sections, such as “You Do Not Have to Generate Capital,” “You Do Not Explain Tenderness,” and “You Do Not Have to Be Captive.” As the poems within the sections weave in and outside of these abstract themes, the speakers of the poems are searching for reasons, answers for the existence of such concepts. But, as we continue to read on, we realize that sometimes there are no clear-cut reasons for existing. In the poem “New York in June,” it is written, “I’m not sure how I stayed alive / the summer I lost you…I never asked god about you.” Here, as the speaker struggles with the death of a loved one, they continue to go through a routine of mourning. It is through this process they learn how to move on, to linger in a space and live without this person.
Combining personal and impersonal narratives, such as the one in “New York in June,” Barnes sets up intimate scenes that empowers both speakers and readers. In the poem “Tenderness is all I Remember,” the speaker states, “Sister, what do you think will happen to us? / Do you think it is plausible that we, / winged, will trim the ghosts’ gowns / from snow?” In the acknowledgements, Barnes writes that the collection is geared towards queer disabled women, non-binary individuals, girls and non-binary teens, and to those who are unknown and suffering silently. It is poems like “Tenderness is all I Remember” that this is particularly evident, as there is a particular type of vulnerability and smallness trapped within the speaker’s voice.
I found many of these poems to come from places of pain, whether they are rooted in the poet’s personal memories, or in the ambiguous poems that seem to touch upon broader experiences and topics. My favorite poem of this collection is one of such poems, one that seemed quite raw and real.
A favorite poem from the collection, “Some Answers I Wrote on a Long Term Disability Questionnaire,” gets into the nitty-gritty life of someone who lives with a disability. This poem alternates between the questionnaire format, asking questions like “Are your illnesses, injuries, or conditions related to your work in any way?” and if the condition will impact future work. Barnes then answers these questions with the terminology of astronomy, astrology, and physics. With haunting lines like “I have been here so many times before” and “If an object is moving towards us, its spectral lines shift to shorter wavelengths; / if it’s moving away the lines swing to longer wavelengths,” Barnes juxtaposes something that seems so small—a physical disability—with the weight of the entire universe. It is in this part of the book, in the section dubbed “You Do Not Have to Generate Capital,” where I began noticing the medical and space terminology. It is here, in this section, where the speakers begin to dig deep into themselves and tries to find answers within these grand scientific words and concepts. But, in the end, it seems quite futile, only providing answers on what could be, not what is.
Madeleine Barnes’ You Do Not Have to Be Good layers memory and the metaphysical in order to create a thought-provoking collection. It gives a voice to those considered to be within marginalized groups, offering ideas of their potential in a beautiful, lyrical manner. Instead of focusing on the pain of living with a disability, or the burden of an identity, they can the equivalent of a shining galaxy.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is an undergraduate at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her work has appeared in Into the Void, Corvid Queen, and cahoodaloodaling, among others. She attended the International Writing Program’s Summer Institute and was a Brooklyn Poets Fellow. Currently, she is trying to figure out a happy intersection between her writing, film, and photography endeavors.