What it Means to be Human

Poems about What it Means to be Human.

power lines and towers with sunset in the distance

The Power & Light Company

Under the Used and Useful Principle
a public utility may charge customers
only for assets that are used and useful
in providing service to those who pay for it:
power plants, transmission lines, the sum total
of what it takes to deliver power and light.

Most of those with needs for power and light
in their lives work from a different principle.
Power—prerogative with impunity—is total
by nature, not a thing to sell to customers.
Those who gain it keep it. Having it
befits them, whether used or useful.

Light, on the other hand, is useful
when it gives illumination; think how light
reflecting off the moon reveals it, renders it.
Whether gaining and keeping is the principle
or giving is, matters to customers.
The one’s cost, the other’s benefit is total.

Can those receiving service unbundle the total,
choosing the light, which is nothing if not useful,
but not the power which is not for sale to customers
in any case? Does having the light
without the power offend some principle
of commerce? If so, are we compelled to honor it?

We know from history, which is replete with it,
that power abhors what it can’t control: total
antipathy portends the death of principle.
If we take only the light, can it be useful
without the power? If not, of what use is the light?
That is the quandary for customers.

And face it, our lot is to be customers:
Something received, things taken in return for it.
Light without power or power without light.
How do we keep the dark from turning total
when we ourselves would be the used and useful?
When giving our lives a purpose is the principle?

Caveat emptor, customers. The game is total,
your lives for it: You will be used if you are useful.
But as to power and light, let light be principal.

John Barr/Innisfree Poetry Journal

Chicago skyline at night

Chicago, Tell Me Who You Are

I’m a city with a past, a memory
of wind-fed fire. No fear is like the fear
of a wooden city on a windy day.
Even the people were on fire. “Throw me in the river,”
she told her husband. “I’d rather drown than burn.”

I’m Lincoln when he stands for President.
I’m the City of Big Shoulders and the World’s Fair.
I’m Millennium Park and the long lakeshore,
the Magnificent Mile and tallest towers.
The Cubs and White Sox, Bulls and Bears.

My names are Baby Face, Capone, and Dillinger;
Sandburg, Gwen Brooks, Hemingway;
Disney, Orson Welles, and Tina Fey;
Oprah, Smashing Pumpkins, Nat King Cole;
Jack Benny, Belushi, and Steve Colbert.

I’m “Sunday in the Park” and George Seurat;
the Symphony of Reiner and Solti;
Sinatra and Chicago, Chicago,
they have the time, the time of their life.
I saw a man, he danced with his wife!

A floating line of lights, the world’s planes converge on me.
Flaps extending, each one flowers as it lands.
Astronauts in space see something amazing:
a city rising from an inland sea.
My hands are filled with phosphorescent dreams.


John Barr/The Poetry of US/National Geographic anthology 

Match.com poem by John Barr


She's sitting in the breakfast nook
reading the laptop's opened palm;

he's at his desk doing the same,
and fits the profile in her Notebook.

These two are not from ads but real,
and have not found each other because

the sky into which their queries rise
is thick with stars, and even the stars

are only a small part of the spectrum
of the noise of galaxies.

They open like the trumpets of lilies,
like Plato's halves they yearn to be whole.

Between them a universe,
only a little of which is visible.

John Barr / from Dante in China 

Da Vinci Illustration Body Language

Body Language

Arms implying one another,
legs in alternation going south,
this swaying scaffold of bones
bears through fields
the head without a thought.

poetry marker

Blood floods the passageways,
the stomach grips its food,
the heart advances in darkness…

all while I walk,
shake hands, work the wash of events.

poetry marker

In seven years, they say, it is renewed:
each hair in its follicle,
each pore in its microbe dell.
Atom for atom, the valleys of my brain,
the long journey in my legs
suffer replacement.
A good occasion for improvement
you would think:
but no,
the same old scars,
all my mistakes preserved.

poetry marker

Once in his life
a man should know his body in its prime.

Dark drifts of hair,
the narrows of the waist,
the great junction of the thighs,
the torso lagged with muscle bronze.

The body's peak
on the long parabola from helplessness to helplessness.

poetry marker

At death
the soul flies out of the mouth,
all eyes on it, it
continues out of the room.
Then the body is declared
larval to the man.

Yet I live in a settlement of two hundred bones.
Of its own accord my body beats.
the great whorls of my fingerprints
approach like storms.

John Barr/from The Hundred Fathom Curve: New and Collected Poems

Night Flight poem by John Barr

Night Flight

–for Stephen Sandy

Into the last smoke blue of this day's light
the de Havilland lifts, trailing from each wing
the lights of the Capitol.

Except for the heat blur off each engine's cowl
the view is clear, out to the nebula of Lancaster,
so clear the wingtip strobes have nothing to print on.

The plane gains altitude like an extended praise.
In the cockpit richly blue gauges
keep track of our relationships to earth.

Having succeeded in leaving the earth
not nearly so well as the plane, this poem
discovers it is not about a plane but you.

John Barr / from The Hundred Fathom Curve


Commuter Moons

Out of round, it ascends
the early air,
the window of the car
that takes me to LaGuardia.

As a stone skips on water,
it touches moments months apart.

Have you, from 30,000’,
seen it at day's edge?
Out of its element, so pale
the blue of astronauts shows through,

you could well prefer the desert below
scored by roads, or how a river's folds
show water's sidelong slide to gravity,
the deep reversals of its getting there.

I know it won't bear one more metaphor,
having been the thing in easy reach
of a thousand generations,

but it is high and bright and half
tonight. The stars we know as morning
dim in its government.
And here on the floor the very light.

John Barr / from The Hundred Fathom Curve

Chapter 11 by John Barr

Chapter 11

Waiting for the marshal's men,
I can tell you the velocity
of money is faster out than in.

Squeezing nickels from cotton candy,
watching Dumbo chasing Dumbo,
the Ferris wheel coining sky

reminds me of the Northwest passage.
Questing for what does not exist,
like wrong views of God, can last

a life. (How else can a carni
of a tented city in a meadow
make the Greatest Little Show?)

The prowess of rubes, skill of swells,
the ardor of the drifter for
the runaway. The luck of the Born to Lose.

John Barr / from The Hundred Fathom Curve

Sign Shop Poem by John Barr

Sign Shop, Sing Sing

Worthy of Dante, penal planners
fit the sentence to the crime.
One hundred times the lifer writes DEAD END
the rapist YIELD

Consigned to help us KEEP RIGHT
these minor Moses lay down laws
                            ONE WAY
                            OBEY THE LIMITS

In bins wait cautions
                            FROST HEAVE
                            FALLING ROCKS
for every hazard but the one that put them here.

We hear and heed. Mild souls who hold the road,
the likes of us imagine the likes of them,
in a custom '57 Chevy, mowing down every sign they've made
on the way to unpaved, unposted roads.
And wouldn't we like, like them, to open up,
looking for conviction in the zone
between boredom and extinction.

John Barr/from The Hundred Fathom Curve

commercial-truck-representing teamsters poem


Now must be the time to make time,
judging from the rapid bump of semis
filling my room. (Having discharged live loads
at Albany are they–at 4 A.M.–
on to loads of cold-rolled sheet?)

At All-Night Stops, in the presumptive day
of mercury vapor you see them circling their rigs,
testing with ballpeen for the "No flat here"
that 18 Firestones better sing:
you overhear them in booths, in the assumed
accent of crackers prolonging
a mythology of getting through.

In shirt tails and shit kickers, awkward
as crabs, no wonder their withdrawal
into the greater identity of cabs.
Atop chrome registers they double clutch
in intricate shifts, feel in gear trains
for the nodes to make this mother move.

Muncie... South Bend ... Kankakee,
on handfuls of speed they test the limits:
Smokey's temper, templates of curves,
tread's griplessness on ice,
the harebrained, hairpin possibilities.

Eating the rinse their mudflaps fling,
I can ignore how they highball our good grief,
what their bumpers say they pay in taxes,
even the menace of their Brotherhood.
Bring our bread with incivility
they may, but (under their seats the proper answer
for highjackers) bring us our bread they do.

John Barr/from The Hundred Fathom Curve New and Collected Poems

Driving In Rain poem by John Barr

Driving In Rain

End of a weekend, going back,
my two tracks sinuate as one.
Skin of rain drawn tight by wind,
the windshield wipers don't keep up.

Posed in this airspace, passing
Purgatory Gulf Pop. 125,
I wonder why observe the limits, why
keep pulling it back
when, let go, it would go
straight for a time,
                                          then wander
off without assumptions,
questioning first the need for road.

John Barr/from The Hundred Fathom Curve