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Two poems by Walter Bargen

The Answering Ice

For Michael Castro (1945-2018)


he answers the phone. He hears blackbirds

meandering their sentences across the sky.

He hears leaves scratching their syllables

across the porch. He can hear what he doesn't

understand and know it is his like the dust

settling on his books. He can tell by

the tone of his voice that he's talking

to his grandmother that is not his grandmother.

He will have little to say and too much.

He will simply go along with whatever is said

to him. He will be evasive, half-hearted,

He knows he must give it all up.

He feels the weight of shadows breaking

the oak's branches. He hears wars unresolving

themselves. He hears the board sliding

from the roof, hitting him in the back of the head

driving his face into the raw dirt. Premonition

or practice? He bursts our laughing.

He can hear a child silently digging to China.

He laughs again when he is locked in the attic.

Another time he falls through the ceiling

His wings not having time to open.

He will have little

to say. He will simply go along. He will

listen half-heartedly. He hears the coming

snow pressing deeply down on itself and on him.

Finally, he asks about the doctor's diagnosis.

She won't know until Thursday. He can hear

cutbanks swelling with cold and the drizzle of dirt

that falls, ringing the creek's thin tongue of ice.

Down Side Help


His mother-in-law can’t remember

how to turn on the TV. He’s explained

the procedure clearly, step by step,

at least once a week, and sometimes

almost daily, for months. He’s suggested

that she leave the TV turned on

and just turn the sound off

if it bothers her, and it does

when she goes to bed and wakes

wondering who is in the living room.

The mute button alludes her.

He types instructions and she can’t

find them. He tapes the instructions

to the side of the TV. Then he tapes

the instructions right above

the on/off button and tapes an arrow

to the remote. Then he types

the instructions in ever-increasing

font size. He continues to drive

to her house whenever she calls

for him to turn on her TV,


After six maybe seven decades of never

being involved in a car accident

or even issued a ticket for her driving,

she is given three by a friendly policeman

in a single month. A few weeks later,

her son-in-law opens the hood

to her new Lincoln Sedan and removes

the distributor cap. Whenever she remembers

that she owns a car and it won’t start,

he says that he will check out the problem

and fix it later in the week. She forgets

and he doesn’t. The police officer, who lives

across the cul-de-sac, on a warm sunny day,

listens to her complaints. He lifts

the car hood and points out

that the car’s distributor cap is missing.

Returning from the auto parts store,

she is soon off and running again.


Walter Bargen has published 23 books of poetry. His work has appeared in over 300 magazines and his awards include a NEA Fellowship, Chester H. Jones Foundation Award, and the William Rockhill Nelson Award. He was appointed the first poet laureate of Missouri.

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