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
Black Powder

Black Powder (4th of July)

Saltpeter, to sailors who swore the cooks
put it in the eggs to keep their cocks in check;
Nitre, to alchemists who dreamed
of turning lead to gold;
Potassium Nitrate, to the druggist who asked
the boy what he would do with that.

The ancient Chinese recipe:
Mix with sulfur, charcoal
seven parts to one to two.
Grind it fine as talc.

What he would do is strike a match, then watch
the blaze of self-discovery––
the boyhood burn to master
the forbidden and impossible––
choking the basement with smoke
from what could sink a ship at Scapa Flow.


John Barr/from War, Literature & the Arts

Manhattan Morning (9/11)

I. The Mirror of Arcadia

You know how it is in August in New York,
Summer over, the populace returns.
From old houses on the Cape
lawyers return to the temperament of neckties.
From chardonnays in island hideaways
traders return, their animus renewed.
From tranquil gossip on the Jersey shore
to idle gossip on the trains, we all return.

You know how it is. The newsboy tends
his hundreds of small relationships,
the Stock Exchange its googles of worm-wired trades.
With doming regularity the shells
of exquisite dynamos pulse power, the wheels
of the city mend and turn, the gear box makes.

In August now September
the city's towers take their turn
an airplane's height above the sparkling plain,
the Hudson folds into the bay's embrace.

High up, the silver pin of a plane catches the sun.

 

II. The Man Who Was Made Out of Alarm Clocks

Out of the primitive hold of early maps
they come, an anonymity of feet.
Out of unabated wilderness,
kingdoms of vanished shade,
they come to beckoning shores of oblivion.
Out of the white spaces on our maps,
places overwhelmed with what's not there,
they come, the unexplored libido of Arabia,
to the rally of catastrophe.

Men who consider themselves mainsprings of God
think kindness weakness, modesty unnecessary.
Próduce of an undernourished universe,
of things that have no wellness in the level world,
they seek to sunder the turnbuckles of experience.
They have the tools to make car engines
an obstruction, a car a dance of tires.
They understand the flammability of rubber,
the role of concrete in structural collapse.

One not among them, taller by a head,
stands a head closer to God.
A lank man, put together long,
his face is like a slice of chaos.

Steeped in an ancient clandestine,
he is present by being absent.
He is in the business of mystique.
He sings to the faithful who would have
our hearts out whole,
One, two, buckle and do.
He sings the beginnings of songs,
not the centers, never the ends.
One, two, buckle your brother's shoe.
To us he speaks a disconnected gloom.
I mean you harm.

The plane descends with a flattening urgency.

 

III. The Bone Dance

The air has found its voice, the wind comes in…
two clicks–and a great flower of flame comes out.
It is the season of laws.
Here are the blows of stated time,
the blossoming of de facto.
Within the remarkable arena of fire
the persistence of flame provokes more flame.
The fire-softened girders deform,
the grid makes of itself what it will.
It browns and cherries and excoriates.
It reaches pitches to escape.
It yields to the claims of carbon black.
Exploded doors, downhauls of nothingness:
The dark dreaming thing it is to die.

And this is how the heart goes home.
When it rains in heaven
the dead open their parasols like copper hosannas.
The porches resound.
The rain, round-shouldered, warm,
comes in as though it belongs.
The God of entirety arrives.

 

IV. By Any Other Name

You know how it is,
a people brought so high
by the empanelled opportunity of towers
may come to a knowledge of falling,
may fall by shifts.
Become invisible to us,
like the firmament at dawn,
their lives touch ground.
September is named again. A people
comes to the knowledge of its name again.

Let us speak of the sourcing of souls.
We live in a country still in its Tocqueville surmise,
never old enough, and always new.
We live in a place where deep believers
and those of moderate faith,
and those of not much faith at all
pursue the true and what is beautiful.
We owe ourselves the presumption of innocence.

Above the irregular, partial sprawl of cities at night
we see a people who understand the use of tiny lights.
Here Denver perches on the knuckles of the Rockies,
here Dallas rises like a glass salute.

Out of an inland sea Chicago rises
like a seat of phosphorescent dreams.
Over Washington we see the monumental
inclines of the builder's fathmic art.

The gift of the dead
is to hallow the living their lives.
Landing tonight we see
Manhattan glow with extra beauty.
In the grip of a great story slowly told
it becomes endlessly vivid, becomes
the dreaming thing it is to be alive.

John Barr/From The Hundred Fathom Curve
Nobel Rot Wine

Noble Rot

A fungus, fittingly called "noble rot,"
takes hold in vineyards at the end of harvest time.
Robert Parker

At season's end
a few are left on the vine
to mold and frost.

Gathered by hand
for harvest wine,
yielding perhaps a single glass

at meal's end–
as I would be: wizened
and full of nothing but sweetness.

By John Barr

Veterans Day image for Veterans Day poem by John Barr

VETERANS DAY, 1985

I come with my sons to this Memorial's
black vectors, pointed with 50,000 names.

Vets–their camouflage fatigues
like faded Christmas decorations–
patrol aimlessly.
Unable to let go of the intensity,
they reminisce or stand silent at the Wailing Wall.

Letters on a clear black field call roll.
They touch them.
They spend a long time reading.

John Barr / from The Hundred Fathom Curve
First Freeze illustration of two owls dressed in overcoats

First Freeze

For ice like this,
tuned to the whisk
of a skater's waltz,

a sudden freeze–
single degrees,
not a breath of breeze–

the kind of cold
the turtles heard
last fall, calling in
the late sweet sun

Come in
Come down
Return

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