~This poem previously appeared in The Northridge Review (1997).
Express Train Boogie-oogie
(Read left to right, and also verticality down indentations)
As the station recedes its lights blister
Into raindrop halfglobes
Wet tracks shuttle the eye
From path to path
Now the whole city is revealed gleaming
Fishnet of light pulling in lives
Along the avenue painted numbers
And panting engines flash into mind
Little balls of light the wind pulls
Across the glass like taffy
And now the train slides out of town
Into a flowering darkness
Here's the warehouse district and Club 333
A dark industrial geometry
Dragging trails of signs and coinage
Yellow fireflies packed in a jar
Burst their bulbs
Black trees and leaves in a black sea shivering
Before they drown
People make random gestures
A ragged man pasted on a bench
Where money mates with anatomy
Through the panting interiors
The windowsquares of well‑lit lives
Peer through orchids and seaweed
Greenlit pines lining an empty block
Of grey concrete parking lot
The thousand faces of a movie crowd
Burst through the borders of my body
Of triple‑X theaters
And out the red velvet EXIT
Here are plunging lovers behind half‑drawn curtains
And a woman's silent O as her mouth yawns open
A rainwet warehouse redslicked with rust
Long streets climb a hill and spill
Where metal streamlines clash and overlap
Against a canvas sky painted black
Someone looking up from his written pad
Windows like the slow frames of a film
Through my reflected body
Shining like the tines of a fork
As carload after carload of light
Flickers and is eaten whole
~This poem previously appeared in Rattle (2004)
Young Woman Drinking at the Campo de’ Fiori (Where Giordano Bruno Was Burned at the Stake for Heresy in 1600 for Claiming that the Earth Orbited around the Sun)
On the green plastic chair she’s so alive
and blazing he can barely glance at her
as he drinks soda and campari here
where tourists congregate like pigeons and love
for just a day in Rome. He thinks her smile
is frightening. It yields such pent-up light
that he needs courage watching it ignite
not to flinch back. She is the sun. He smells
the fire and falters, almost mute, breath short.
He feels his stomach fulminate in red,
smoke in his eyes from her flame of dark hair,
the breasts electric in her brown stretch shirt;
he’s splintered into kindling but upright,
and he keeps talking as flames blur the square.
~This poem previously appeared in Images (1985)
Beijing eased into a dark bath
hours ago. I should be in bed
letting light of dream irrigate my body
but I am slipping through the abandoned corridors
of this great city, trying to invent a mission
as I bicycle down the unending streets.
A night watchman cups flame to his face.
Factories, bulldozers in the mud of darkened lots,
smokestacks are piles holding up a pier of cirrus.
Stupidly I read messages, over and over:
the whine of cicadas,
a mountain of coal humped against a cloud,
the lone guard cold and stamping his feet,
a few stars awash in the black flood,
lighting their signal fires. I'm sorry.
I know I'm not a good spy.
How hard to decipher this watery mind
where buildings swim off the horizons
burning inside like paper lanterns.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
"Young Woman Drinking at the Campo de’ Fiori (Where Giordano Bruno Was Burned at the Stake for Heresy in 1600 for Claiming that the Earth Orbited around the Sun)": This poem was written about 11 years ago during the summer when my wife and I separated after 16 years together and I fled to Europe, uselessly, as it turned out, since I was haunted everywhere by her ghost. I survived that time by writing sonnets, sometimes as many as 6 or 8 a day, projecting my experiences and emotions like steam on the mirror of the poem as a way of expelling them out of myself so I wouldn't burst like an overheated boiler. These poems were eventually collected into my book of poems, Sad Jazz: Sonnets, and this was one of the poems I wrote that summer, though one I didn't put into the book. The poem records the fumbling, pathetic attempts of a 39-year old man--a man who had been with one woman so long he had no experience with dating, much less with flirting—to talk with a young woman in Rome.
"Express Train Boogie-oogie" was written out of an interest I developed in Cubist simultaneity, the ways in which as Kenneth Rexroth said about the poetry of Pierre Reverdy, "Poetry such as this attempts not just a new syntax of the word. Its revolution is aimed at the syntax of the mind itself." In the modern era, the confused, jumbled cityscapes of urban Europe and America provided new mental states that had to be represented, and for many modern painters who painted such scenes it became clear that perhaps the goal of painting was not to represent outside realities, but internal ones, the subjective acts of perception and cognition, moods, tones, attitude, confusion, emotion that occur when, for example, a red firetruck comes screaming around a corner in Manhattan, flashing lights bloodying the store windows with their SALE signs and mannequins and reflected reversed and tiny in the eyeballs of the poet, me, who jumps back out of the street and back onto the curb. Learning from Reverdy, and from the embryonic poems that emerge from William Carlos Williams's triadic line poems when you read DOWN the indentations and not left-to-right across the page, and from the way e.e. Cummings used parentheses to create poems within poems so that there was no one way into and one way out of a poem, but rather several doorways and several exits, I set out to depict the urban and industrial landscape through a train window, with overlapping layers of the present and past, of vision and reflection, of self and city and the reified images of commerce exchanging themselves in the imagination.
"Espionage" is a poem I wrote during the year I lived in China (1984-85), and it reflects the strangeness of being an alien in a closed culture. The China of that time was one where the secret police opened your mail, where foreigners lived in large compounds with guards at the gate who reported their visitors to the Party, where students who spoke too freely in your classes would have to drop out because they would be politically denounced, where all the beginning of openness to the West was suffused with a pervasive fear and with the memory of a history of slaughter, torture, false imprisonment, and, to use William Blake's terms, "mind-forge'd manacles." The problem at the heart of the poem was the problem I had in general that year: how can I be a spy in the house of China? What can I record and report back in the secret missives and coded texts we call "poems"? I was attempting to write my first book of poetry that year, and as often as not I was failing. I was a lousy spy. Only two of the poems I wrote that year made their way into my first published book. This was not one of them. However, this was the first poem I published in a nationally-distributed magazine, so it remains dear to my heart. ~Tony Barnstone
ABOUT TONY BARNSTONE
Tony Barnstone is The Albert Upton Professor of English Language and Literature at Whittier College and has a Masters in English and Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California at Berkeley. His books of poetry include Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, winner of the John Ciardi Prize in Poetry (BKMK Press),The Golem of Los Angeles (Red Hen Press, 2008), which won the Benjamin Saltman Award in Poetry, Sad Jazz: Sonnets (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005) and Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone (University Press of Florida, 1998), in addition to a chapbook of poems titled Naked Magic (Main Street Rag). He is also a distinguished translator of Chinese poetry and literary prose and an editor of literary textbooks. His books in these areas include Chinese Erotic Poetry (Everyman, 2007); The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (Anchor, 2005); Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry (Wesleyan, 1993); Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei (University Press of New England, 1991); The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (Shambhala, 1996); and the textbooks Literatures of Asia, Africa and Latin America, Literatures of Asia, and Literatures of the Middle East (all from Prentice Hall Publishers). Among his awards are the Grand Prize of the Strokestown International Poetry Festival and a Pushcart Prize in Poetry, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. Barnstone is currently producing his first music CD, titled Tokyo Burning, based on his book Tongue of War (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/594899386/tokyo-burning-music-based-on-wwii-oral-histories).
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