Tony Barnstone is The Albert Upton Professor of English at Whittier College and the author of 16 books and a music CD. His books of poetry include Beast in the Apartment (Sheep Meadow Press, 2014); Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, winner of the John Ciardi Prize in Poetry (BKMK Press. 2009),The Golem of Los Angeles which won the Poets Prize and the Benjamin Saltman Award in Poetry (Red Hen Press, 2008), Sad Jazz: Sonnets (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005), and Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone (University Press of Florida, 1998). He is also a distinguished translator of Chinese poetry and literary prose and an editor of literary textbooks. In 2014 he published a bilingual (Spanish/English selected poems, Buda en Llamas: Antología poética (1999-2012) (Ediciones el Tucan de Virginia) and Dead and Undead Poems (Everyman 2014) and in 2015 will publish the companion anthology, Human and Inhuman Monstrous Verse (Everyman 2015)in addition to a new book of poems, Pulp Sonnets (Tupelo Press). Among his awards are the Poets Prize, Grand Prize of the Strokestown International Poetry Festival, the Pushcart Prize in Poetry, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, the Benjamin Saltman Award in Poetry and the John Ciardi Prize in Poetry. His CD of folk rock/blues songs (in collaboration with singer-songwriters Ariana Hall and John Clinebell, based upon Tongue of War and titled Tokyo Burning) is available on Amazon.com and CD Baby.
Two Poems from The Beast in the Apartment:
The Empty Apartment
Sometimes I think that people are the fingers
of God, like the blind ocean touching land,
and life’s a Braille that I won’t understand
if I’m not touching you and we’re not singers
kissing a song out of our mouths in bed.
Tonight I fumble keys in darkness by
my door and try to feel my way inside
to cook alone and watch TV; instead
I walk down California to the seething
blackness out there beyond the glowing beach
and stand a long time listening to each
heave, the ocean like the planet breathing.
It’s done with raging windily and wild.
Tonight it whispers, Shush, it whispers, Child.
The Apartment Empties
Sometimes the talk inside your head’s so loud
the lanterns in your eyes withdraw like priests
receding into catacombs, a crowd
of muted thoughts to carry the deceased.
The outside hurts. You pull back from embrace,
a vampire from the sun. These days the question,
“Would you like a receipt?” and the bland face
of the tongue-pierced clerk awaiting a suggestion
of a response from you is too hard a test.
You live a blank man’s life, and what you’ve found
is that it’s easier to go upstairs
and sink through bedding to the underground
cave of roots, hands folded on your chest
in rest, as if in death, as if in prayer.
The Californian Book of the Dead
I’m scared, so I’m writing this book of the dead,
a last testament, like James Kidd, Arizona prospector
mining the edge of Superstition Wilderness,
maybe murdered in Haunted Canyon for his gold,
whose will left his half million to research the spirit
because “I think in time we will photograph the soul
leaving the human at death." Perhaps we will, or perhaps
there’s no will left when the body, sleeplike, settles
and the mind breaches, and the last neurons flaring in a final
visionary chain try to understand the storm wind ripping us
from our bodies, the million tiny Buddhas crawling down
the eyelids, white buddhas, red buddhas, blue and yellow.
The teenager daydreams super powers, walking invisible
into the girls’ locker room and bank vaults, a super punch
that sends the football jocks sprawling, but doesn’t dream
of the body’s simplest power–the power to stop.
The body has its own will, and so I leave this testament.
Crack wide the doors of the sky, let my spirit leap
into heaven like a grasshopper, let me float among the stars
and eat the gods, and when I stand before the lords of death
I’ll testify that I leapt from the pit of dreams each morning
and tried to live my life awake, that I gave twenty dollars
to the woman by the freeway entrance with the Homeless
and Humiliated sign while the red truck honked behind me,
that I bowed my head and dug with my tongue
between my lover’s legs, that I mined that cave
and the gold for me was the pleasure she felt, but I did not
sleep with that woman at the French bistro who was so bored
of her husband and her little girls. I lived the best I could.
And if the mind breaks down in death, and the last neuron
fires in darkness like a sun snuffed out in a dying galaxy,
and if I wander for a while alone and find no god,
no rat, no earthworm, no butterfly of the spirit realm,
then let this be my superpower, the ability to speak
without breath, to write without fingers, to streak like
a meteorite across a black screen, and to go on and on
without will or consciousness, just these dead words
dancing before your eyes, a toy skeleton on a string.
from The Golem of Los Angeles
© 2015 Tony Barnstone