The Fourth River

CLOSE READING: “The Pastoral Poem in the Broken World,” by Dilruba Ahmed

By on February 17, 2014


Dilruba Ahmed is the author of Dhaka Dust (Graywolf Press, 2011), winner of the Bakeless Literary Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Blackbird, Cream City Review, New England Review, New Orleans Review, and Indivisible: Contemporary South Asian American Poetry. Her writing has also appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review blog, the National Book Foundation blog, and The Kenyon Review Online.


When talking recently with students about pastoral poetry, I thought of “Tarp” by Rick Barot for the mix of “sweet dream” and “rude awakening” that Mark Strand and Eavan Boland note that the pastoral poem can provide. Barot’s poem also provides deeply intimate glimpses of human struggle alongside sweeping global dilemmas with political implications. For any reader– and particularly for students interested in “nature and place-based writing”- Barot’s poem warrants a close look for its complex depiction of the relationship between humans and their environment in the contemporary world.

“Tarp” by Rick Barot

I have seen the black sheets laid out like carpets
under the trees, catching the rain

of  olives as they fell. Also the cerulean brightness
of   the one covering the bad roof

of  a neighbor’s shed, the color the only color
inside the winter’s weeks. Another one

took the shape of   the pile of   bricks underneath.
Another flew off the back of a truck,

black as a piano if a piano could rise into the air.
I have seen the ones under bridges,

the forms they make of sleep…..

Using the sheet of plastic as a focal point, the poet directs our attention to the tarp’s many uses as a helpful piece of gear to catch or to cover in various settings. The tarp can aid humans in harvesting, which is one form of control over the landscape: “catching the rain/ of  olives as they fell.” Barot surprises us with the “cerulean brightness”- not of the sky, but of yet another tarp, this one an attempt to shield one’s belongings from nature’s rain, wind, and snow. The poem reminds us that the tarp is malleable and takes the form of whatever is beneath, whether it is a “pile of bricks” or the human figures “under bridges” to which the poet alludes. With this gesture, Barot shifts from the protection of objects– olives, sheds, bricks–to the human need for protection, warmth, and security. The promise of safety from the earth’s elements seems less convincing in this context, however, as a tarp is likely to provide little comfort for the homeless in harsh weather. With this move, Barot begins to prepare us for a dramatic transition from the tarp’s uses to the tarp’s failures – and to human disappointments.

Broadening his focus from the “thing” (the tarp) to “the category of  belief that sees the thing / as a shelter for what is beneath it,” the poet refuses to permit the reader to hold to any illusions about the physical world’s capacity to protect humans from any level of harm – whether that danger stems from human activity or from nature’s elements.


There is no shelter. You cannot put a tarp over

a wave. You cannot put a tarp
over a war. You cannot put a tarp over the broken

oil well miles under the ocean…..

With four brutal words, “There is no shelter,” Barot dispels any of the “sweet dream” of the relationship between people and their environment with a “rude awakening” to the limits of what humans can or cannot do. The poem’s unconquerable “wave” conjures recent natural disasters – tsunamis, hurricanes, floods – events that have brought into question the impact of human activity on the health of the planet. Without going into detail, the poem points out that there is no item or object imaginable that can solve other human-made problems, including war, a term only used in its most general sense, leaving the reader to conjure all that the word comes to represent: violence, turmoil, injury, grief, loss–the worst that humans have to offer each other and the world. The poem then turns to a specific example of humans’ attempt to control and exploit the natural landscape, a “broken / oil well miles under the ocean”–an image that evokes the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that made history as the world’s largest disaster of its kind. As readers, we are forced to confront the notion that the world’s problems are too large and too overwhelming to adequately address, rendering all solutions as makeshift and useless. With its repetition of the phrase “you cannot,” the poem creates a feeling of bitterness, frustration, and anger, as well as a bit of a rebuke, as though to say, “Look what we’ve done.”

In the poem’s final lines, Barot transitions from his panoramic gaze of oceans, war, and natural disaster to a more intimate kind of disaster, the invisible battles that humans face daily.

There is no tarp for that raging figure in the mind

that sits in a corner and shreds receipts
and newspapers. There is no tarp for dread,

whose only recourse is language
so approximate it hardly means what it means:

He is not here. She is sick. She cannot remember
her name. He is old. He is ashamed.

Here, Barot strips the reader of any possible illusion of safety or protection. Not only do physical items fail to protect us, there exists no antidote to the intensely personal struggles and losses that human face. Not even language can help us. The final lines nearly taunt us with their inability to convey the depths of human dread, using a choppy, child-like simplicity to describe absence, illness, memory loss, aging, and shame.