“You Do Not Have to Be Good” Madeleine Barnes (Trio House Press) – book review

Madeleine Barnes You Do Not Have To Be Good book cover

This collection is split into sections, “You do Not have to be Earthly,” You Do Not Have to Seduce”, “You Do Not Have to Explain Tenderness”, “You Do Not Have to be Fruitful”, “You Do Not Have to Be Captive”, “You Do Not Have to Take My Word for It”, “You Do Not Have to Be The Same Forever”, “You Do Not Have to Be Cured”, “You Do Not Have to Keep Time”, “You Do Not Have to Be Mighty” “You Do Not Have to Generate Capital”, “You Do Not Have to Be Innocent”, “You Do Not Have to Know”, “You Do Not Have to Create Paradise”, “You Do Not Have to Measure the Longitude and Latitude”, “You Do Not Have to Be Rigorous” and “You Do Not Have to Prove it”, which make it sound like a manifesto, albeit one for good mental health. An early poem, “A Fire” is set after a funeral, where the narrator,

“poured wine and whisky

to distract the living
from their half-belief.

When the blaze closed in,
I did not want to talk

about things to come
or comfort others.”

The narrator is driven to tend to others” physical needs, offering drink, but closes when they might want sympathy or a word of comfort. The narrator seems fixed in the present moment, acknowledging the deceased but not yet ready to deal with the consequences. The poem doesn’t clarify who the deceased is or their relationship with the narrator so readers are left to guess whether the narrator was closer to the deceased than the other guests at the wake. Therefore it’s difficult to judge if the narrator is being reasonable in not offering comfort or if the others should be offering comfort to the narrator.

“Dig” is a relationship between a mother and daughter which ends,

“She says, you taught me how to be a mother.
Too many stars span before us. We tear the rocks.

I dream of knowing my place in her poems
but bury my heart deep in the earth,
tiny gravedigger. I want to be joined

to her words, but how many times are you allowed
to need your mother? Help me with this,
I want to beg her. Help me exit your poem.”

Good mothers learn from children as well as teach children. A mother never stops being a mother so the question “how many times are you allowed/to need your mother?” reveals more about the narrator’s state of mind and the relationship. The narrator seems reluctant to acknowledge her independence and separateness. But at the same time, the narrator doesn’t reveal what it is she conceals from her mother, “bury my heart deep in the earth”. There’s a communication issue here. The mother seems reasonable, but something is stopping the daughter opening up and asking for help. Again, readers have to speculate as to why.

“New York in June” follows a poem about the narrator’s mother and doesn’t clarify the relationship between narrator and the poem’s addressee, the “you”,

“I’m not sure how I stayed alive
the summer I lost you.
I hardly noticed the sky,
refused to learn from it,
drew lines through your name.
I rode the train alone,
walked home alone,”

The ending, “I memorized/ The aftermath/ and let you go” could be the ending of a love affair. Much clearer is the sarcasm deployed in “Some Answers I Wrote on a Long Term Disability Questionnaire”, the questions in italics,

“When do you believe your condition(s) became severe enough
to keep you from working (even if you have never worked)?

We do not have a complete survey of the entire sky. However,
theorists believe that the Milky Way is surrounded by a triaxial
[football-shaped] distribution of dark matter.

You may use this space for any explanation. If you need more space,
attach a separate sheet. If unknown, check “unknown”.

How much the trajectories deviate, and in what direction they do this,
depend on the shape and orientation of the dark matter halo.

I have been here so many times before.”

This is soul-crushing bureaucracy that asks the same questions over and over again in case a different answer is given and seems to forget it is dealing with humans.

In “I See Her Among the Stars”, a character named Mary is looking at Betelgeuse through a telescope and asks God,

“So we’re safe from Betelgeuse?
Well, He said, if there are any astronomers
around when it does blow, they will be extremely
thrilled to have a nearby supernova.
She nodded. Said:
Even if it’s nearing the end of its life,
I do love the golden colors
of Betelgeuse against
a velvety black night sky.
So turn, He said, and live.”

Mary is delighted to live in the moment of what she currently sees, despite knowing that the star is dying. A similar sentiment to the earlier poem “A Fire” where the narrator wants to stay in the process of losing a friend, not yet ready to acknowledge the loss. Mary’s voice seems childlike, but Mary is the also name of Jesus” mother. God, naturally, is paternal. The reader is left not sure who Mary is or who she represents.

“You Do Not Have To Be Good” leaves an opaqueness at the heart of each poem, inviting readers to speculate and try to figure out the narrator’s relationship with others in the poems. That said, the poems do explore trauma effectively, particularly losses that come from being unable to fully reveal a self to a listener or someone who might be of help. They come from a place of affirmation and healing.

“You Do Not Have To Be Good” is available from Trio House Press.


Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

One Response to ““You Do Not Have to Be Good” Madeleine Barnes (Trio House Press) – book review”

  1. Poetry Blog Digest 2021, Week 2 – Via Negativa Says:

    […] Emma Lee, “You Do Not Have to Be Good” Madeleine Barnes (Trio House Press) – book review […]


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