What it Means to be Human

Poems about What it Means to be Human.

Match.com poem by John Barr


By John Barr / from Dante in China 

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.

Three Weddings (and no Funeral) image

Three Weddings (and no Funeral)

By John Barr / from this Archive, What it Means to be Human

For an Island Wedding

Once there was an inland sea,
its waters blue and beautiful
with absence, for there was nothing else
and this was once upon a time.

Out of this sea an island rose,
its conifers green with abundance,
its reaches white where the waves climbed,
and this was once upon a time.

Out of the island there rose a town,
its streets busy with men,
its harbor brown with boats
busy with cargoes of the time.

Out of the town a church was raised,
its walls in all simplicity
contained like hands the faith
and the fervor of that time.

And out of this church that rose from the town
that rose from the island that rose from the sea
a man and woman came and joined.
Their love was green with abundance
and white where the waves climbed
and beautiful and blue. And it held like hands
in all simplicity our time,
and other times and once upon a time.

Sleeping Late

We slept until the clocks ran down,
the wedding flowers dried to dust,
the gas man disconnected us.
Days without sound
the spiders darned and starved.

The world returned to work but we did not.
Steeply slanted into sleep,
dream after dream as things should be,
we followed the overtures of our vows
on tides of understanding to where two
together is sufficient and entire,
and marriage a radiant equipoise.

Our quest—for nothing less
than Eden and its innocence—embraced
exalted gardens all across the earth.
But innocence, we learned at last,
is not a state of grace we lose at birth,
then work a lifetime to recover.
It’s what a lifelong hunger self-creates.
At the ending of love’s labors, ours and yours,
it is the blessing that awaits.

These Are the Conditions

Two souls on separate voyages,
not just beginning but well begun,
knowing enough of the world
but still in love with what is good.

This is how it happens.
A passionate perceiving, a beholding
of a second center to the world,
a blossoming of incompletion.

This is where it goes.
In the single tending of the two
the voyages converge
and, soul subsumed in soul, the two are one.

And this is how it ends. It never does.
Love is the gentle absence of many other things.
It will be the last thing left, the final trace
when our kind is finally done.

Firstborn image by John Barr


By John Barr

For Nate and now for Blair


In case we cannot speak
I tell you now, before you are born
or even conceived,
that I am with you
until the round of your baby head
grows into the broken flagstones
of no face but your own,
and you go forth into good life.


In the hill of pregnancy,
swayed to the mother,
already you are you.
At night you wake in your day
and practice, a foot of travel left,
the last dive into light.


Balled like a juniper for the USA
you transit night like a northern state.
The moon the semaphore,
your bed the rolling freight,
I in the small town cannot say
what garden you are headed for.

Night Flight poem by John Barr

Night Flight

By John Barr / from The Hundred Fathom Curve

–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.


Commuter Moons

By John Barr / from The Hundred Fathom Curve

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.

Chapter 11 by John Barr

Chapter 11

By John Barr / from The Hundred Fathom Curve

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.

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.

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.

Outage poem by John Barr


By John Barr / from The Hundred Fathom Curve 

Our dogs in the sudden silence raise
their heads. Hums of the house gone dead,
the clocks flash 12, the freezer's hold
softens with remembered thaws.
The power grid's ability
to self-excite, the integrity
of a communal whole aborts.

Not everything, of course. A breeze
unbundles the treetops and disports,
the nation of frogs exhorts, exhorts,
and here in the room lungs fill and pause.
I think the end may come this way,
some things in the dark at first
just not going forward as they should.

The Brotherhood of Morticians image

The Brotherhood Of Morticians

By John Barr / from The Hundred Fathom Curve

The story is told of the undertaker
who runs out of formaldehyde
and uses antifreeze instead.
Asked why his costumers look blue,
he says he's made them good
for starting down ten below.
Let me take that as my text tonight.

We function at the shelving edge between
the dead and living: upstairs receive
the bereft with sympathetic mien,
assist in the ceremonies that release
their grief, maintain decorum
from visitation to the Rest In Peace.
In small ways on this side
of the great divide we add valorem.

Down in the basement we prepare
the departed to deworld: fallen parts
put back, drain cavities, ensure
with needle and formaldehyde
that burial's not premature.
(Only we need to know what's underneath
the suit; we're paid to work alone.)
Death we cannot forestall
for we come after, but the appearance of death,
we do. Nor Jekyll, not Hyde, we undertake
to give the grievers back their own.
Not black, our arts are to restore:
toiletries and touch-ups, nails and hair.

Our charges seem to sleep. The wake,
correctly done, is a farewell
"to one who goes before."

Muted organ, muted lights, mute friends:
our insincere sincerity
buffers the bewildered family
from grim specifics of the tragedy.

Pinched in earthquakes, browned in fires,
consumed by cancer's radish,
a coronary's urgent turbulence,
collapsed at tables, choked on bones
(was there ever such savage disregard
as when Death squats, Neanderthal,
on the chest of a dinner guest?),
buckled in showers, felled at urinals.

Good fellows, our associates, Rotarians
who take the jokes as part of the job, who oversee
the motorcade, one stop upstream from Charon's,
the progress to the pit,
the vicarinvokingchrist's last words,
the family not hearing it,
the unaffected cemetery birds.
Or, if cremation's specified, they certify the burn,
entrust to a family friend the urn
to carry south to green reaching waters of the Gulf.

But the lesser in our trade
miss the magnitude of what we do.
We are after all not dressing meat.
Our task: no less than to preside
at a meeting of world and world, a mystery
wherein the person they knew
and some strange double coincide
("It's him, but it's not.").
In one, two worlds epiphany.

They're one of us still, the newly dead,
but lack their spark (that gone
to the parson's charge or who knows where).
The simmer in the brainpan at the body's end
is out. Stiffness invades the supple limbs.
The fresh dead season and dry.
And this is the first life after death.

Roots visit, tendrils touch,
slow solvents work new properties.
Animal, vegetable, mineral,
the dead in grave's grip reach
a dreamless crystalline estate.
A man, become his minerals, salts
away the last of his identity,
seeps to the water table and secretes
trace elements. And that is the next life after death
a foreign stain on the littoral
at the beck of continental drift.

I tell you, World Without End is a statement of geology,
No longer lightning-life dotting the earth, marking divides,
we are returned to the planet's peristaltic beckonings,
welcomed by eons below, included in the crush and flow
of plate on plate, the tectonic thrust,
unimaginably strong and slow,
as continent mounts continent,
the grind, compression, conversion to what is next and new.