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The Wooden Overcoat

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It turns out there’s a difference between a detail
and an image. If the dandelion on the sidewalk is
mere detail, the dandelion inked on a friend’s bicep
is an image because it moves when her body does,

even when a shirt covers the little thorny black sun
on a thin stalk. The same way that the bar code
on the back of another friend’s neck is just a detail,
until you hear that the row of numbers underneath

are the numbers his grandfather got on his arm
in a camp in Poland. Then it’s an image, something
activated in the reader’s senses beyond mere fact.
I know the difference doesn’t matter, except in poetry,

where a coffin is just another coffin until someone
at a funeral calls it a wooden overcoat, an image
so heavy and warm at the same time that you forget
it’s about death. At my uncle’s funeral, the coffin

was so beautiful it was like the chandelier lighting
the room where treaties are signed. It made me think
of how loved he was. It made me think of Shoshone
funerals, where everything the dead person owned

was put into a bonfire, even the horse. In that last
sentence, is the horse a detail or an image? I don’t
really know. In my mind, a horse is never anywhere
near a fire, and a detail is as luminous as an image.

The trumpet vine on the sagging fence. The clothes
in the fire. And each tattoo that I touch on your back:
the three-part illustration of how to use chopsticks,
the four-leaf clover, the clock face stopped at 12:05.
Source: Poetry (April 2012)

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

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The Wooden Overcoat

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  • Rick Barot was born in the Philippines and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He attended Wesleyan University, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and Stanford University, where he was a Stegner Fellow in Poetry and later a Jones Lecturer in Poetry.
     
    Barot is author of the poetry collections The Darker Fall (2002), which received the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, Want (2008), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards and won the 2009 Grub Street Book Prize, and Chord (2015). His poems and essays have appeared in the New Republic, Poetry, the Kenyon Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review,and others.
     
    The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, Barot has taught at numerous universities including Stanford, California College of the Arts, George Washington University, and Lynchburg College. He currently resides in Tacoma, Washington, and teaches at Pacific Lutheran University and Warren Wilson College.

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