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Walter Bargen, three poems

Institute of Eyes

I’m waiting among those who are already waiting,

hoping to see something of comfort that they’ve seen before,

or haven’t seen in years, and those few who just hope to see

no matter the consequences, maybe without words that will not

be seen again. No one notices the black and blue eyes of helium

balloons that bounce and stare down from the ceiling

and their synchronized blinking in the drafts from the opening

and closing of the glass doors. Or the eyes with their eyelash-thin fins

swimming in the aquarium of the aqueous humor

near the receptionist’s desk who doesn’t look up in greeting.

May be it can be measured and understood

in the shadows of ever-diminishing letters

projected high on a wall across a room

until the finest lines of letters are a mist

that blows over out-of-focus faces,

eyes unresolved squinting,

prisoners of their own ageing ruin.

Still a woman waits, her toes barely touching

the floor but not her heels. Her back straight, stiff,

her lap-sized purse filled with what must sustain

her waiting for that moment when she is told

her chances. Both her arms embrace the black vinyl

with its artfully looping handles, as if recalling rocking

a blind child to sleep. Her stare unrelenting, the steel

of not seeing anything but the past, but hearing

all that passes, the patience of patient after patient

walking down the hallways of their own privatized visions.

Great Moon Hoax

It’s clear, across the bottom of the TV screen,

the crawler moving slow enough you won’t miss a word,

moving slow enough you’re hooked and can’t let go,

but it’s not enough, the commentators

can’t stop talking, it’s beyond the sensational,

it’s beyond astonishing, it’s clear, it’s definitive,

denial out of the question, Sir John Herschel,

the imminent British astronomer,

with a “hydro-oxygen” mechanism attached

to his telescope has discovered life on the moon,

including 38 new species of trees, horned bears, bipedal beavers,

multiple humanoid species, some with bat wings,

some with faces similar to “orang outangs,” though one

is “less dark in color” and another “scarcely less lovely

than . . . angels.” The New York Sun intending satire

but the truth of satire is reprinted and translated

into newspapers around the world on August 25, 1835,

precursor to Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds,

October 30th, 1938, nationwide panic.

Reporting nearly 200 years later, the fake news

is no longer fake news, since it is the news

reporting on fake news and 50 shades of unreality.

Arm and a Leg

. . . because I sometimes feel it may not continue to exist much longer....

--Thomas Merton


He isn’t certain whether cosines

and square roots are needed,

as the doctor sums the cost of an arm

and a leg. Any way, he manipulates

the figures with a bit of Dr. Frankenstein,

but the calculator won’t perform

the grisly calculations.

New batteries don’t extend its reach.

He goes digging in a closet, pushing aside shoes

that haven’t lodged a foot or complaint of blisters

in years. The dust monumental,

guarded by cherubs. The towering

cobwebs the clothes of ghosts.

He finds the box where his army rests,

assembled and generaled in his tricycle years.

When he was twelve he resigned

his command of forces, who were always on the attack,

to become a pacifist. Little rubber figures,

the color of pond scum, forever in the position

of throwing a grenade that surely has exploded

by now, or lying prone and aiming, their rifles

surely out of ammunition, or crouched and running

and if not blown to smithereens by firecrackers,

then surely severe back pains ensued.

Sure enough at the bottom of this boxed army,

rolling aimlessly around orphaned arms, legs,

hands, and even a couple of heads, the loss making

no difference to the aim and bayonet thrust

of their statuesque devotion.

He arranges the maimed soldiers on his desk,

a line that suggests a horizontal axis, a calculable

destination, the simple cost of an arm and leg,

but not for the headless as most of his neighbors

these days head for the November election.


The cost is too much, it frightens him.

At one moment, he’s standing on a sidewalk

In front of a theater, 1957, the movie marquee

reads Bridge Over the River Kwai,

starring Alec Guinness and William Holden.

Half-century later, he remembers the tune

the starved British POW’s whistled

as they marched off to complete the bridge,

then destroy the bridge, Shakespearean style,

by an escaped prisoner who has returned

and is killed along with the Japanese commandant,

the British officer in charge, and two other commandoes,

as the train filled with Japanese dignitaries plunges into the gorge.

And there he is, leg missing from the hip down,

and no warning, as if he were one of Remarque’s

German soldiers, who looks over the parapet

of a trench at Verdun, and falls back headless,

or is standing guard and for the briefest moment

is balanced on one leg before being spun around,

neon blood fanning out in a circle around him.

He’s devastated, chokes back sobs

in case John Wayne still has manhood cornered,

but he’s only recalling his mother’s father,

a WWI vet struggling across the muddy farm yard,

his one leg submerged to the ankle as he angrily

wrestled with crutches planted deep in chicken-shit

muck, or maybe it’s his father’s father,

a sailor who survived a mustard-gas attack,

The details never clear, but it was later, a heart attack

shoveling coal for the railroad.

We all give an arm and a leg, or if we are lucky,

An arm or a leg, and it doesn’t matter,

we will get to the stage,

one way or another, whole or in pieces.


In part it will always be so,

The whole evades us

Even as we cobble together

With wood glue, silicone caulk,

Duct tape, the pieces that we hold

Dear and not so dear, value

And discard, shaping the dust

Of what we know and don’t know,

Always a question of space

If not time, but cherish all the same,

There to rest on a mantle next to the family photos,

The odd collection of keepsakes, fragments

Of a son and daughter’s itineraries,

As they rush into the world,

Hoping to find out if it’s really true

Only to conclude they already know,

Whether it be the bone walls, the bone columns,

The bone chandeliers of Kostnice Sedlec

In the Czech Republic, as if that’s all we have left

After so many wars, our calcium casting longer

Shadows without us, haunted by the past’s presence.


Walter Bargen has published nineteen books of poetry. His most recent books are: Days Like This Are Necessary: New & Selected Poems (2009), Endearing Ruins (2012), Trouble Behind Glass Doors (2013), Quixotic (2014), and Gone West (2014). In late 2017, Too Quick for the Living and Perishable Kingdoms were published. He was appointed the first poet laureate of Missouri (2008-2009). His awards include a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship (1991), Prose Award from Quarter After Eight (1996), the Hanks Prize (1996), the Chester H. Jones Foundation prize (1997), the William Rockhill Nelson Award (2005), Short Fiction Award– A cappella Zoo (2011). His poems, essays, and stories have appeared in over 250 magazines.

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