Tony Barnstone



Sure thing, Henry Thoreau, I'd like to live a life aware,
but how when sonambulating down to the corner store
I find the day is just ordinarily beautiful, the sky singing blues,
sun bouncing lightly up tatters of cirrus tattering whitely?
Nice people smile nicely and walk doggy dogs on the sidewalk,
and it's barely worth noticing, like open house notices
for houses worth more than this poet could afford,
or beneath notice, like hidden insect monarchies rising feudally,
futilely, ancient Chinese mini-dynasties beneath the so-green
grasses, and amassing armored masses to fight, armies
red and black, for control of the known world, from the twig
to the outer territories by the far fence post.
Mainly I'm aware of what I can't know. No knowing when
the great clawed dogfoot will crush battalions from above
or when a golden godchild will drop a red vine
by the city gates, enough ambrosia to last a generation.
No knowing as time wrinkles and rips that the house
and town and corner store and our life together will burst
like atoms, chain reaction exploding every moment
until this one right now—even these words, this poem
my girlfriend tells me is no good fizzling with brief
life and then demolished with the rest of the universe.
And perhaps that's for the best. No knowing, after all.
Still, I dream of waking to an order—keys in one pocket,
change in another, though keys and change will mix.
Hey! Is that a pattern in buckled sidewalk, or is this all a sleepwalk?
A pattern in the hand signals the leaves make in breeze, or am I
schitzophrenic? How to decipher the ciphers, the circle round
the "K," the silent rows of Snickers, mounds of Mounds,
the sour Zours? Blow your tiny horns, insect trumpeters!
Awaken! Let all the popcorns pop at once, the girly mags drop
off the walls, the grey matter rip with electricity.
Or else I'll just drowse down the aisle, that's all I can
do when it's all beyond my ken—the way the unclosed "P"
on the handwritten sign on the TIPS jar makes me think
of TITS, the way there is no explaining the five bucks
I drop without a thought into the jar and my goofy
smile to the tired girl behind the counter, chewing gum.



Somewhere secret, in a rebellious cell,
in an organ softening like a nectarine in the sun,
or in some dead end in the blood's freeways,
is a power hidden in my body,

the power to die. I am powerless to do
anything but stew and percolate, spin
electric idea-webs, move the body down
the street among the other bodies, take air

the way a street dog eats food laid out for him,
body tensed to fight, eyes watching for the one
coming to snatch it away. I'm frightened of
a power in my body, and so I keep my pen moving

across the page, filling the blank, leap from the pit
of dreams each morning, and drink too much coffee.




A man swings through the open doors on crutches,
his long arms thick with muscle like the Christ
whose marble shoulders shouldering the cross
are sculpted mighty as Odysseus's.
Before he crosses forehead, heart and chest,
the cripple leans one crutch against the wall
and dips his free hand in the carved stone well
of holy water. Hoping to be blessed,
he gazes at the painted ceiling, stays
a moment, hands crossed on a crutch, tame head
bowed. From the altar's speakers angels sing
while on one leg like a black stork, he prays,
his other pant leg pinned. If he's not dead,
God listens and as is his way does nothing.



on "Rip Van Winkle...": This is a bit of a rant on an issue important to me: how to live a life aware, awake, to break out of our lives of quiet desperation? This question posed by Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman is based upon a form of religious dualism derived in part from Hinduism (thus, Emerson's "oversoul" is an Americanization of the Hindu concept of Brahman). However, if you believe a la religious dualism that the real world is fake–just a shadow of a spiritual world that is Platonically true–believe it to the point of hearing voices—then you are to the inhabitants of the real world certifiably insane. Thus the priest-like Dear Abby-esque newspaper columnist Miss Lonelyhearts in the eponymous novella by Nathanael West is obsessed with the question of finding a larger order in the world's entropy, and the lines "keys in one pocket, / change in another, though keys and change will mix" are lifted from the novella. He is driven crazy by this quest, or, alternately, has a true religious experience. There is no way of telling the difference.

on "What Gilgamesh Thinks...": This is one of my pseudo-persona poems, in which I take a half step away from the confessional mode by attributing the poem's voice or point of view to a protagonist who (as in the case of Gilgamesh) is often torn out of context and put into the modern world. Is the poem actually about my own mid-life crisis? Yes, of course it is. So why do I cartoonishly associate my own memento mori with this great epic hero? Partly, I do so because it fits thematically—Gilgamesh mourns over the death of his friend Enkidu, realizes the vanity of human wishes, and goes on a quest for immortality; partly I do so out of a sense of play; and partly out of a sense that as a poet I want to be large, like Whitman, containing multitudes, and to tell more than just my own story.

on "Jean-Paul Sartre in the Basilica": This poem was written in a cathedral in Rome, while watching an amputee hobble into the church and pray. On his face was an expression of patient and profound sorrow that reminded me of the misplaced forbearance of an abused spouse. Like my Gilgamesh poem, this is one of my pseudo-persona poems. When you read all the pseudo-persona poems in sequence, you quickly realize that Sarte both is and is not in this poem, as am I. At some level, all of these persona poems are meant to be masks for the author, so that the protagonist should shimmer and shift from persona to author and back again when one reads the poem.