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....
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. www.walterbargen.com