Albatross flying over wave in the sea

Albatross

For its first five years the bird does not return to land.

Home is not land’s end,
a fledgling nest
of food and rest.

Home is the wind
you glide, the sea
you glean unendingly

until a hunger comes
to Wheel and Go–
not Home

but what you can’t yet know:
the clambering of kind
on kind.

John Barr/The Century Association

very old books on display

The Library at Innerpeffray

The first lending library in Scotland.

On a drumlin by the River Earn
we step into the nature of the known.
Harled and slated as it was from the start,
this place, its books and the bookmaker’s art
for 300 years and counting kept their troth
with crises of loyalties, religious wrath,
rational enquirers and divines,
successive reaches of related minds
to give a shape to reality itself.
Knowledge ages. Shelf by silent shelf
the volumes speak volumes about dead languages,
dead letters, and about what never ages.

John Barr/The Scottish Poetry Library

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 

mushrooms growing on log

Season of Spores

One rain and they appear.
Along the trails—Tranquil Bluff,
Croghan, Juniper
a cadence of feeding on the forest floor.

The scatter of moon-colored stuff
erupts from the mire, unfurls
a bric-a-brac of fluke and ruff,
lavender cap, topiary puff.

But no morels!
This field of mortal fruit
battens on decomposing soils,
is only good for witches’ spells—

and fun. Architects of the minúte,
a fleet of tiny galleons sails;
a solitary minaret
warns the faithless of their fate.

All rubbery flesh and radial gills,
so alien to what we know,
they are strange to the kingdom of chlorophyll
as marsupial to mammal.

We call out their colors—gamboge, ecru—
give them lofty airs—
Whose woods these are they think they know.
But what they do, and do with a will, is grow.

Outriders
               from a parallel universe.
                                Foragers. Reconnoiterers.

John Barr/Mackinac Arts Council

Civil War battle scene

Dante at Shiloh

I.

I found myself in the aftermath.
Cannonades had set the woods ablaze,
felled whole trees, swept the earth

with canister and grape. From bodies
and body parts heaped up by musketry
(Aim low and be deliberate, boys.)

a strangeling crawled––Blue or Gray
I couldn’t tell––from the Minie balls’ last meal.
Straining to break their cannon free,

dead horses, still in harness, hauled.
Voices out of the burning undergrowth
wept for water as the field fell still.

At the iron dice of war, both sides lost.
Wild pigs won, squabbling over their feast.

II.

It started to rain and with it came a troop
of orators––men of God,
carpetbaggers of every stripe.

Gingerly, to avoid the mud,
they stepped from one corpse to the next,
crossing the swamp, slipping on blood.

One started to speak, “Brethren in Christ…”
but stopped, perplexed, to see another man
wearing his face. This progressed,

speaker after speaker, until soon
each searched in panic through the group,
and when he found his stolen face, that one

he mounted and buggered, like boar on boar–
in self-love or -loathing, I wasn’t sure.

John Barr/Innisfree Poetry Journal

man standing with arms out in rain room

Water’s Way

It takes 500 years for the ocean’s waters
to complete one trip around the earth.
National Geographic Society

The prodigal returned, a bride running late,
it races from the street,
climbs the plumbing in the walls
to the bathroom tap, then halts.

Water is weather. Pulled from swells
out where cyclones make the only news,
its vapor ladders latitudes to the pole,
refreshes bergy bits, brash ice, floes––

or crosses longitudes to fall
as shoures soote upon us all,
then drain away to aquifer.
Weather is God’s will writ small.

Water is extended metaphor:
Its antecedent, alchemic character
commonly denominates
all things, in compound or by temperature.

4 a.m. Fill the glass.
Let the molecule from Christ
stand again in human state
even as it quenches thirst.

John Barr/Innisfree Poetry Journal

Geese Flying In Formation

Flyways

I used to think of them as marathoners
raised to a power of ten: seemingly
indefinitely able to postpone
over Olympic hauls (four, five thousand miles,
a quarter of the globe's waxed face)
the need to flop down, flabby with exhaustion
and wait for rest, in its own good time,
to bring a better state of being.

After the bouillon of Canadian lakes in bloom,
fingerlings grown too big, air filled with lateness,
they lift, taking in stride the variegated land,
brick bunkers of the Bronx, the lay of Central Park,
giving room to LaGuardian pterodactyls,
the prickle of hunters on the Chesapeake
with their coy deceits, out over open ocean,
the earth's hull visible…

the camber and bell and hollow bone
(as grasped in the sienna studies of Leonardo)
working well, minute adjustments of the tail
with inertial certainty
keeping well to the right
the wrinkle of burnt Sierras, one side snow;
the desert incised by rulered roads,
by rounds of irrigated green; large-mannered Mexico,
the Mayan rhythms gathering to isthmus–
until you pointed out, two days ago,
that neither does the heart (not the "heart"
but the heart as grasped in the dissections
of Michelangelo) need rest, seemingly
indefinitely able to maintain
a heading and speed, resting as it goes,

through day's distractions, night's curing cold,
inclement weathers of every sort
until, after years of regularity,
it comes to a Patagonia not seen before;
landing in this new non-flying it doesn't need,
it joins in the clamor of its kind;
on shingle, inhospitable but free of predators,
just above the surf's antarctic burn,
it assumes the nesting rights established
when the pole was elsewhere and the continents one.

John Barr/from Hundred Fathom Curve
Prometheus Adam Louvre

Promethean

It was anger — the audacious theft —
that chained him to the cliff for vulture's fare.
But fire itself, Zeus knew, could be the more
poetic punishment: subvert the gift
to a burning underground — Kentucky coal seams,
the slow combustion of mass burials
stoking the decay with human fuel
in plague pits, under soccer stadiums;
make it the incinerating blooms
of Bikini, Fukushima, and Chernobyl,
the Willie Pete and Little Boy that fell
on Dresden, Hiroshima, Vietnam.
Make him the airman crouched above his sight,
aiming to illuminate the night.

John Barr/from Measure
The Hove by John Barr image

The Hove (Memorial Day)

Such as there was in the littleness of that dawn
could not be this. Not, certainly, the hove
of an invasion fleet from Angleterre,
flotilla wrought of shipwright, chandler, armorer
as if Ice Age breeding stocks were on the move.

The Planners had their weather oracles,
haruspices their entrails. All divined
the red planet aligned, full-moon
visibility, high tides to clear
the beachhead obstacles — but iffy weather.

Gulls glean the wakes. Something of a factory —
diesel and air and the Jersey spirit spark —
of the hydrocarbon Gloriana makes
ungainly way in the valleys of the swells.
The shore emerges quaquaversally.

A Very pistol throats the air. Battlewagons
wheel for the presentation of the agon.
Shades of sherry fill the clouds with light.
Mike boats enter surf’s unscrolling rolls.
Empty jaws agape, the gods take note.

The odors of the offering, so rich
they start saliva flowing, must be painful
for the gods: not preamble for the meal,
the meal itself. Famished
they try to gorge the oily cooking smoke.

Amphibious landings to prevail require
the triumph of the small; circle in circle
perfected on parade grounds of the soul.
Committing an empire to the fire
calls for just-in-time ferocity.

They eat the savage honey. The boys pound sand.
Green eyes gammoning they all pound sand
until for the battle there was nothing left that day
but what the carrion patrols collect
for Paternosterers to sacristy.

They’re strong, these Irish penny whistle songs.
Just the one wild tone working alone
the registers, trying the proper sound
for sorrow. Ours for theirs,
theirs for theirs, ours for ours.

So many shouldering forward, enjambed
now cross the Styx with the ease of smoke
passing through a window screen    ...    depart
the shapes of things continuing for shapes
supercooled to the stillness of mortmain.

The business of the flag is never done.
It fills in the wind and fails, but never the same
akimbo twice. Each snap a fresh report
from acres of tended lawn
rankled by crosses perfectly plumb.

John Barr / from Poetry Magazine
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