Poems by ALIKI BARNSTONE:
Poet & Emily Dickinson Scholar
Poem Links: |You Pray to Rain Fallng on the Desert|Ephemeral Ethereal |
My Friend Steve Asks If I Believe in the Afterlife |
Emily Dickinson in Las Vegas|
On the Eastern Seaboard with Diane DiPrima|
|Ode to My Hair Stylist
Aliki Barnstone is a poet, translator, critic, editor, and visual artist. Her most recent books of poems are Bright Body (White Pine Press, 2011), Dear God Dear, Dr. Heartbreak: New and Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow Press, 2010), BlueEarth (Iris Press, 2004), Wild With It (Sheep Meadow Press, 2002), Madly inLove (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1997), Windows in Providence (Curbstone, 1980), and The Real Tin Flower (Macmillan, 1968). Her other books include Changing Rapture: Emily Dickinson’s Poetic Development (University Press of New England, 2007), The Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy: A New Translation (W.W. Norton, 2006), The Shambhala Anthology of Women’s Spiritual Poetry (Shambhala, 2002), A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, ed. With Willis Barnstone (Schocken, 1992), The Calvinist Roots of the Modern Era, ed. With Carol J Singley and Michael Manson (University Press of New England, 1998), and the Readers’ Edition of H.D.’s Trilogy, for which she wrote the readers’ notes and introduction (New Directions, 1998). In the fall of 2006, Barnstone was Senior Fulbright Scholar in Greece, where she did research for and wrote a sequence of poems, “Eva’s Voice,” in the voice of a Sephardic Jew from Thessaloniki, who survives the Holocaust. “Eva’s Voice” appears in Dear God, Dear Dr. Heartbreak. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing Program at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Series of Editor of the Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation, and Director of the MU Workshops in Greece – Athens/Serifos.
You Pray to Rain Falling on the Desert
because it is a Sunday where the sky is blue nearly every day
and you might forget to be sad.
Because you don’t sing with a choir, except the quiet
rain intoning on the backyard patio —
and the raindrops outside are not the human voices
you must listen to.
Because in March rains wake up desert flowers
and globe mallow blooms everywhere—burning bushes
in the Valley of Fire and vacant lots waiting for gas stations.
You will see their orange blossoms flaring through your windshield,
and no voice will say I am.
Because the rain will swell Lake Mead with our water for drinking
and bathtubs and gardens full of thirsty grass, roses, and oleander.
Because the fatal bacteria will die in treatment plants.
Because there are no mosquitoes here, no malaria.
Because the Children’s Hospital is stocked with medicine.
Because the rain will wash away dust and misery
and channel toxins from spent bombs into the ground water.
Because your daughter wanted to walk instead of drive
and she spun in her orange dress, pointed her pink-sneakered foot,
and curtseyed in the driveway
because rain on the desert is a multitude of tender hands
applauding new life.
It is the eve of war
and you don’t believe the broadcast on radio and on television:
I will rid you out of their bondage
and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm,
and with great judgments.
Because the rain keeps you inward, attending
to the outward hiss of traffic on boulevards.
Because the rain is unclear, a vast gray erasing demarcation.
Because the rain makes you tired of the word because,
tired of causes becoming effects, tired of causes, tired of tired reasons.
A couch surrounded by books—
all the furniture there was
in the apartment on Meeting Street.
In Providence the city and streets name aspiration.
Angell and Benevolent are parallel and intersect Benefit;
Hope leads to Prospect and Transit. He read aloud
some ironic passages from H.L. Mencken’s In Defense of Women.
There can be no mystery between intellectual equals.
I wanted to hear something else
yet liked his thin fingers on the book,
his bent knee leaned against frayed upholstery,
his expectant gaze when he rose from the text.
It is quite impossible to kill a passion by arguing against it.
Maybe if he’d said enthralling
as he fidgeted with his leather belt—
or I would have taken dissolute.
But he said, “This thing between us is so—”
and the instant he uttered the syllables
I was lost.
One is fleeting; the other, otherworldly—
Which did he say? Which applied to our awkward kiss?
I remember the gas stove flaring up
across the room,
a waft of heat,
the geriatric refrigerator moaning
lonely before an expanse of linoleum.
But that learned boy trying to impress me,
what was his name?
My Friend Steve Asks If I Believe in an Afterlife
—Catherine Ellen Chirls died September 11, 2001 WTC
When the boy delivering her eulogy
first uttered “mother,” a baby sparrow
landed on his head. The boy reached up
and took the bird in his guardian hand,
felt the heart’s quick pulsing and the uncanny
feathers against his skin, the heat
and smoothness of the small body.
Then he opened his hand like a single
lonely wing and set her free, there
before the hundreds of gasping mourners
and the New York Times reporter
who made her visitation fact.
I would become a bird to reach my child.
How could I not come if she called?
How else explain the sparrow that defied
instinct? A mother’s soul would ask
to borrow a body for a few seconds,
to remind her son, “Never limit yourself,”
as she did one night, the newspaper tells us,
as they cleaned up after supper.
Yet I can’t help thinking how cruel
to let a parent soul stay long
in a sparrow’s body, never to speak
a word to her son or touch a cheek
he’s just begun to shave. Maybe
in the zoology of mourning
the winged creatures fly to our need
and cross the border from the wild
into human memory, which might be
the afterlife—the strange word afterlife
tells the time after death when a sparrow
is mercy perched on a boy’s head,
is mother for an instant, then flies off,
identical to others in her species, gone
in the evergreen filling with autumn wind,
like a feathered breast taking in breath.
Emily Dickinson in Las Vegas
Throngs who would
not prize them, know
those holy circum-
stances which your
dear eyes have
sought for mine —Emily Dickinson
I don't know me
mirrored in your dear eyes
even when my prized pen
wanders across the desert page
and throngs of birds are
letters to you, their wings
brief imprints on red mountains,
casinos, and resorts that draw
prized throngs to where sun’s
big as God's eye—who
knows I seek your
dear eyes, those holy circum-
stances rhymes with dances
can you see an alpha-
bet linking arms by chance,
spinning across world's high-
gloss floor to spell it new
they have changed eyes
who would not prize them
would not want like me
to read your eyes, dear,
the letters, the whys
blooming in fast-motion
on your lens, the throngs
mirrored there among the growling
cars, the freeway's wild
dogs, chaos so bright
the throng’s mesmerized—even the moon
sees the night city
the eye of the black pyramid
shooting megawatts into space,
for throngs—the jets’ contrails
announce the sequined bride
the groom's throat surgeon-scarred
the ruby tongue stuttering
what God has brought together
in ten rented minutes—holy
the wedding chapel—let no
one tear asunder—say
I love you, common words
and seek me uniquely—making
love hits the jackpot
ask your throbbing Scripture
how to follow the letter
the chance spirit,
to read what your dear
eyes have sought for mine
in Las Vegas or the meadows
throngs pray to be chosen
in the jasper-walled casino
Lord and Lady Luck stand knowing
holy circumstances, the slots’ electronic
music chanting bing bing bingo
luring hope for the prize
On the Eastern Seaboard with Diane DiPrima
Our conversation is in a car because in Greek metaphor
We drive the wrong way up a one-way street because we are
too happy to obey the signs.
We pull a U-turn because breath is a U turning and we keep going,
avoiding fatal accident.
We talk about our Calvinist inheritance because we’ve returned
to our birthplace in the East, though ours were not a people of God,
settled in the devil’s territories, and we witness
The Wonders of the Invisible World,
more snarled with unintelligible circumstances
than any we have hitherto encountered.
We’re stopped by the reborn cops that Cotton Mather
sent after us in our previous lives.
They shout out, Put your hands up! Way up!
and interrogate: Why don’t you take Jesus as your savior?
And Diane rounds her fingers
into the reasoning mudra, patiently explains:
to evoke is to call forth something that stays outside yourself
whereas to invoke is to take it inside through the crown.
Then she winks as if they were in the know.
And then they let us go.
I say Jesus was a rabbi who thought his word was so smart,
he didn’t have to love his mama.
Diane says I’m hungry because the bright body holds the ravenous mind
to her breast while the spirit broods over, flashing her wings.
We order to go. Diane sips milk from a transparent plastic glass,
touches her prayer beads made of shining Chinese coral.
Santosha, santosha chants
the airflow around the windows.
I step on the gas, Ahhh! and we merge
onto the highway, speeding toward Providence.
Ode to My Hair Stylist
For she takes me back to adolescent joy when she colors my hair the exact dirty blond,
with its natural highlights and lowlights, that it was when I was seventeen.
For she will let me keep my gray steak with grace.
For when I say I’ve earned my white hairs, she will nod with utter compassion and incomprehension
For she shushes the stylist in the next station when she gossips that at forty the client
who just left is old.
For she knows I have a sympathetic ear.
For she circles me in a rite to the goddess whose voluptuous plaster form oversees the
For she is surrounded by other beauties and her temple is laden with talismans for the
For she has made her hair healthy as a vestal virgin’s with curative herbal ingredients in
priceless shampoos, conditioners, and leave-in treatments.
For aroma therapy makes me sneeze
For she sells a magic cream to heal wrinkles, itches, and zits.
For she offers to make my headhairs and pubes match.
For her breasts don’t sag beneath the rhinestone logo on her t-shirt.
For her powdered cheeks glitter with tiny ersatz sparkles of sand and sun.
For her layers of foil render me an Egyptian princess, a Cleopatra or
For her dizzying potions and dyes hypnotize me though the oracle is invisible.
For her daughter’s father is not drug-free and he brings the girl home late from visits
despite the court order.
For the owners of the salon are unkind.
For she has no health insurance.
For she could have gone to college were it not for her stingy father.
For I ask the outraged questions she expects and raise her pedestal higher.
For her problems are not my own.
For she hands me fashion magazines and saves me from work.
For she feigns she shares my taste in clothes.
For she slowly steps round me in silk harem slippers and undulates her arms above me like a belly dancer.
For she rhythmically massages my head and neck under a stream of skillfully adjusted
warm water and she lulls me
into a dream of ease.
For she has hidden her every imperfection.
For she blow-dries my hair into a confection of hairspray and pomades
I could not reproduce.
For her favorite part is the closing ceremony, when she spins the chair to show me my
back in the mirror, the beauty I cannot see.
Poems: Copyright © 2011 by Aliki Barnstone from her book,
Bright Body. (White Pine Press). All rights, including electronic,
are reserved by the author.