What it Means to be Human

Poems about What it Means to be Human.

The Armouress Replies Sculpture

The Armouress Replies

It seemed I heard the one
they called the Armouress
complain, longing for the days
when she was young.

Le Testament, Francois Villon

My poet-punk, poète maudit,
When it comes to women you know shit.
Look at the girls who’ve eyes to see
What God gave them for tush and tit:
They set their caps and cruise the street
For some young buck who’ll buy them stuff,
Give them a brat at either teat.
They call that home, for them enough.

Not me. My beauty was of such regard,
Although they called me Armouress
One look at me and men grew hard
To know me by my true name, Amoress.
No Little Lamb but Lioness,
Reclining in a dark-carved gown,
I took it as my pride of place
To reign in the raffish parts of town.

Men of high degree, the higher
Born the better, called on me.
Dressed to the nines in evening attire
Their pants dropped with their dignity.
Even Prelates of the Holy See
Left their better angels at the door
To try my Kingdom with their Key.
Like rosary beads, I counted four.

Though I had always honeyness to spare,
My days of coiffed perfection passed.
No longer Countess, not yet whore,
I plied my jaded kittyness
To land the butcher’s boy. I took his sass,
The protestations of his love,
His boiled nuts against my ass—
By God, hand never found such glove!

And who would have me now? My Boo-Hoo’d Boy
Gone 30 years, my brief bloom flared to fat,
Behold the glass: my own memento mori.
To earn my bread I must submit
To sexual gravel, sexual grit.
(I porter his load, get a grip—
Old hag, you make love like a vat.—
On all fours make the ancient trip.)

But look at you, Villon. A wine-house spill
Is all it takes to start a fight.
Your rodomontade incites a brawl—
Haymaker left, roundhouse right—
Another larruping, another flight
From roof to roof across Paris,
Another pinch, another night
Guest of the Gendarmerie.

You make your bail with a round of rhymes,
Your louche ballade a dirty joke:
The Bishop’s flustered Amens…ahems!
As the parish girl of wide-eyed look
Knelt before him and mistook
His proffered finger for the Host,
Then grasped (here loud guffaws) his crook:
For Father, Son,…that’s not a post!

But now you’ve done it. Robbed a church.
Killed a priest. The last of straws,
M. Dehors declares. The jailors birch
Your backside, flay it with the taws.
I seem to hear you sing out your envois
As if any prince would pardon
Such a breaker of the laws,
A pauper-poet and his hard-on.

Item: To Mâitre Villon I’ll bring this poem
Where none but the dead would stay to hear,
Some nameless crossroads you call home.
I’ll read it through although I fear
You’ll have no comment: eyeless, ear-
less, and a raven’s got your tongue.
May it coda your career
As the gibbet does the hung.

But who are you to judge, or me?
To profligacy—no tittle no jot unbet—
We gave ourselves. To ardency.
Time tightens and we’re both forfeit.
My body’s empty as a roadside hut,
Your country of the tongue’s a tough terrain.
For you the hangman’s tourniquet.
For me the end of just another crone.

John Barr

Black and white photo of family standing in yard of home

Suburban Triptych


No house outlasts its hill.
Here, especially, fifty years will see
bones, the basement scar,
something in its place.

But for now the half-moons of the hammer’s miss
could have been carpentered yesterday;
kernels of resin sweated from joists,
still soft to the thumbnail, shine.
In the room where the well probes the hill’s heart
the tank, full of taking, sweats.
The furnace waits, one thing on its mind.


Excavating for a septic tank,
my father shovels a rock from eight feet down.
“That’s never been touched by human hands.”
I hold it aloft: for history,
the cold white thing from genesis.

Green algae, heavy hair
we pitchfork from the pond by wagon-loads.
In a week it dries to nothing, to stink.
Too many turtles, my father hooks one, clips
off its head with pruning shears, tosses
the astonished body on the compost heap.
Our garden yields a crop of trilobite
and sea-worm (already dreaming stone
when glaciers crushed their seabed into soil):
dead ringers for the fat tomato worms
we hunt. In the green immediate
they burst and soak into thirsty dirt.


Past grass, past banjo legs of insects
into loam; six inches down, moraine;
then, lodged in the towering clay,
deep in the hill’s dome, be still:

You hear small gravel. Burrowing.
Then nothing.
a breathing other than your own,
so slow
the breathing in
continues from one glacier to the next.

John Barr

desert wilderness with hills in the distance

Going into Wilderness

If I set up on an unwitnessed rock
my showman soul would not do well.
Fresh air and privacy
would help in taking stock,
but I need someone looking in to see
how well I do, who going back can tell
which way my struggle with the angel goes.
Is such a witnessed privacy a pose?

Simeon Stylites on his post
could not get far enough above the host
that mortified him with acclaim:
mad to be rid of a mad-dog world
the block-and-tackle saint, creaking heavenward,
saw to his shame his name
become a household word,
and on a higher post than his his fame.

But think of a man whose privacy succeeds:
who quits the world uncompromised,
the corner grocer never guessing; who lives,
by an integrity that bleeds,
to be enunciated, formalized;
who dies, whose work—which argues genius—
is thrown out by impatient relatives.
How many of these men have been lost to us?

None, I suspect. We have a way
of leaving ways by which to be disclosed,
buried in backyards, tucked away
for lucky finders to exhume.
Even Jesus in the dry arroyos
could not suffer his work to stay with stone.
Go to the wilderness of your room
to get away, but not to be unknown.

John Barr, The Hundred Fathom Curve: New & Collected Poems

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 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.

I'm 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!

The world's planes converge on me.
Flaps extending, each one flowers as it lands.
Astronauts in space see
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 yearning 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