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Four poems by Walter Bargen


Out the car window

trees move quickly past.

Clouds stand still.

Parking lot empty to the fence,

to the road, to the horizon.

Wind-whipped grass blades,

naked dandelion stalks

compete for the cracks in concrete.

Windows stretch from corner

to corner and you see through

the nailed up boards

where the dust line-dances.

Sun spins across the concrete

shredding hems of heat

before do-si-doing to no good end.

Past the farm implement company

surrounded by beetle-shaped chaises,

their metallic bodies never able

to crawl beyond these plains.

In front of the Killpack Trucking Company,

turn left, turn right, turn around,

turn in any direction necessary for away.

At Sixty-Six

It’s a typical Seattle day: overcast, cold, raining,

the streets reflecting a hard shimmer,

laced with the red and green of changing streetlights.

But it’s not the Northwest,

it’s the Midwest and most everyone is indoors.

I spend longer than usual talking with the owner

of the garage as he stands behind the counter

near the antique brass-trimmed cash register.

The mechanic’s complaints have little to do

with his employees, one of whom walks

into the office and asks him to listen to an engine

that’s running on the lift, or the confusion of metric

with inches, as he sets down a greasy wrench

and says he’ll be right back. I struggle with the phrase

left back, and know there’s little chance of turning back,

and resign myself to turning around. Taped to the door

that opens to the car bays, is his daughter’s graduation

announcement, May 13, when she will receive a PhD in

aerospace engineering. He will attend the award ceremony

but not the reception, his ex-wife and her extended

family will be there. She is the one who took the house,

the forty acres, the million and a half dollars

he inherited from his Dutch father.

Dutch what everyone in the shop

and all his customers call him. She even stole

thirty thousand dollars out of the office

and claimed there was only eighteen-hundred,

which is the amount she returned to him,

which wasn’t enough to pay the bills. He threatened

to declare bankruptcy so she gave him another

twenty thousand for payroll and past due notices.

She divorced him and he never wants to see her again.

He rents half of a duplex and has a girlfriend

that he just can’t believe. She goes shopping

and cooks dinner. She crawls up to him in bed

just to be close. She wants to travel to the Netherlands

to visit his family. First time in his life

he has a loving relationship.

I button up my coat, rain is beginning

to crowd out the mist as I tell him I know

what he means: the meaning of meaning

is relationship. I’m going to walk downtown

to a coffee shop, wait for a phone call to tell me

the car is ready. I tell myself that I’m here

for an oil change, that’s it.

Maybe Not

for Hayden Carruth

I had wanted for so long to read his book

that I’d shelved and forgotten, though the dust

didn’t, and then the author died.

Twenty years later, I read the book backwards

starting at page 101, hoping to work

toward some beginning but page 1 was not

far enough back to feel anything more

then a slow grinding down of a life─

these poems written five years before

there was no more.

It’s calming, the claim that Goethe’s

last words were, More light, more light,

that we might exert some control

over the inexplicable, the mist,

the shroud, the WWII blackout with bombs

falling all around, or maybe not.

George Harrison in bed

as the room glowed in his final rising

and falling breath, or maybe not,

or that my father squeezed my hand for yes

when asked whether to remove the tubes

draining his lungs for a third time

that day, and I turned to wave

at the ceiling at what I could not see.

Frank Rich, the film critic, quotes Mel Gibson’s

response to his movie review:

I want his intestines on a stick and kill his dog.

Frank didn’t have a dog. Maybe this was

as close to God as Mel could get in his Passion.

Hayden’s own ambiguity resolved when he wrote:

I’d sooner be

married by an apple tree

than by a priest.

Marriage a crisp bite and then

the accumulated sorrow of falling fruit.

Empire of Indigo

Already mascaraed rivers of grief.

Already a fidgeting silence blackens the hall.

Tongueless howls, savage claims.

I was asked, but why?

It wasn’t like I wildly waved a gun on the street,

or donated money to an organization

on a watch list, or cleaned out the bathroom which I do

occasionally, though not often enough to keep

the shadows out of the tile joints,

or slit the scaled belly and pull out the viscera

from a fish caught by a kid

who doesn’t understand soft viscera,

the relentless falling dominos. It wasn’t like

that at all but I don’t know what to call it.

I started with the word “officiate,”

and that’s not even close.

We know the umpire’s blind when we’re losing

and we always are. It doesn’t matter, strikes, balls,

stealing home, the ball knocked out of the catcher’s

well-worn mitt after the runner’s body-block,

no officiating here as the ball rolls toward the dugout.

Maybe I settled into “officiate”

when there was no turning back for third base,

home ahead, and for this woman who sat up in bed

at 4 a.m., saying she couldn’t sleep, who was so happy,

if not giddy at the previous evening’s dinner party,

this hour before mocking bird and cardinal announce themselves

in the first skeins of light, in the studio holding a gallon of indigo

she dyed her body, pouring the bucket over her head,

her nipples a surging font of darkness,

pubic hair dripping shadows, the hips’

outriggers sailing quickly under a dark sea,

thighs trellised with streaks

feet following the irrevocable flow

in an already smothering summer heat.

With stepladder and rope she evaded the hours,

no longer hiding yet hidden, shielded, protected

in indigo. Someone I didn’t know,

only our common recognizable namelessness,

but not today, not that we know

what we never thought,

yet already after the words, the songs, the poems,

already the fiddle’s case snapped closed, already

the officiating finished, the evening sky tightening into indigo.

Playing for More

─For Robert Earl Keen

He confesses that he’s played his guitar at a garage sale.

No one offered to buy a song all morning.

The woman who parked a seriously rusting Ford Fiesta

in the yard, one wheel in the mulch of the flower bed,

asked if the steel strings were for sale. She owned

a stringless guitar that set behind her sagging couch.

Her weapon of last resort, hoping to dissuade drunken

boyfriends or intruders to listen closely to the crush

of notes in her swing, the only song they were getting.

He played once at Sparky’s Foot-long Hot Dogs

on Chili Pepper Drive next to the 7-11 though he wouldn’t

say that he increased the traffic. He did make the place more crowded

with his guitar, amp, microphone, and electric cords taped to the floor.

He watched the cars pulling in and leaving next store.

He estimated 64 ounce slush drinks to dogs leashed in buns

to be running ten to one.

Finally he could afford a house

just beyond the exurbs, facing the dry rolling hills, thinly divided

by an occasional withered creek holding onto a handful

of mangy willows. It’s a thin line between isolation and solitude.

One morning he woke to his wife standing in the backyard

in panties and bra, firing a deer rifle at cats down the arroyo.

He remembered his dad saying that if he persisted with playing guitar

he’d end up digging ditches.

I listen to my wife until I step onto the porch

as the screen door slams loud as the crack of a rifle. I’m shot through

with the clarity of stars, each one declaring the sky, so it can’t fall

this night as it has so many others. The coyotes crescendo

their yapping serenade then fall into wild solos

before recalling their ensemble. I return to the kitchen’s

yellow light dull as a page not read in decades and hear again

that this is not what she wants. The solitude stark, unnerving,

dissembling, a hopeless room with no doors, bound tightly in isolation.

She’s looking for a deer rifle. Game is scarce here.

A poet is not a musician but I have read in a bookstore to one person,

stood on stage in a bar without enough light

to see the page or hear myself, and led a parade

where the crowd was one person deep for half-a-mile.

We move in one direction and that’s always away

with the stars high over our ditches.


Walter Bargen has published 22 books of poetry. Recent books include: Days Like This Are Necessary: New & Selected Poems (BkMk Press, 2009), Trouble Behind Glass Doors (BkMk Press, 2013), Perishable Kingdoms (Grito del Lobo Press, 2017), Too Quick for the Living (Moon City Press, 2017), and My Other Mother’s Red Mercedes (Lamar University Press, 2018). His awards include: a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the William Rockhill Nelson Award. He was appointed the first poet laureate of Missouri (2008-2009).

Poet/Author Walter Bargen, "Dental Histories"

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