Tony Barnstone







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.



(from Beast in the Apartment. Rhinebeck, New York: Sheep Meadow Press, 2014)




Parable of the South Pole Buddha

« … the most tiny quantity of reality

ever imagined by a human being »


A physicist is stuck in a bunker at the South Pole,

freezing his burrito off, and trying to detect the rare light

given off by one in six billion neutrinos streaking through

the glacial ice, and it turns out he’s a guy I like

talking poetry with sometimes and before he zooms

to the white continent he tries to explain neutrinos to me

like a priest describing the progress of the spirit to a child.


No, they’re not that three-piece punk band

from Philadelphia, making dancers oscillate in clubs

then fall into each other like so much dark matter.

Like most of us, they have a mean life and a half life.

Like most of us they decay too fast. But here’s the wonder:

these particles are so tiny, so unaffected, they shoot

right through the planet and through us without so much

as setting an electron quivering like a dragonfly’s wing.


I wish I could do that, instead of lying in bed,

feeling gravity glue me to the indentation in the mattress,

wish I could jet right through the world

like cosmic rain, a flight of neutrinos shaped like a poet

and riding on the magic carpet of a weightless bed.

No tax forms, no lawyers, no dentists to drill

through the crown to the rot and murder the root—

just stick my face in the pillow and jellyfish through.


I try to let go of my body, to drop without a parachute,

a little Buddha, neither hot nor cold, but I can’t lift off

like my friend who’s gone to glacial nowhere

and who sets up his machines while the unseen wind

whishes by into the heart of cold, thinking

he can measure the invisible, thinking he might actually

understand what distinguishes us from nothing.



(from The Golem of Los Angeles, Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2008)




The Dump


I keep coming back to the root systems

of clearcut redwoods dying underground

like coral reefs in the sad oceans.


Men come in from the city to plant new saplings

in grids–planned forests whose tapered fingers

thread down through rusted beer cans,


the thousand-year monument of a styrofoam cup,

and grip buried barrels the way on the ocean floor

giant sponges bubble from the nuclear containers


like cheese clouds.  There must be a better way

to say this, how the hills’ bad haircut

makes me think of Bill’s poor head


after chemotherapy, his body seeded with cancer.

At first, no one knew the headaches

that reduced this gentle man to shaking rage


came from dark tissue rooted in his brain.

We just saw the surface:  evil stepfather.

Later the cancer drained him even of violence.


He gave up his job at Westinghouse

and began to forget.  When the toilet became

too great a mystery he shat in the dresser drawer,


pushing the mess out into a nest of white shirts.

He must have known it was wrong–

that nightmare handwriting coiled and black


against the cloth saying waste, waste.

Somehow the body’s hard potato had turned

dark and soft and he’d drape a clean shirt


over the decay to put a skin between his mind

and that thought–like the white sheets in a hospital

that screen patients from each other’s loss.


When I was a kid we used to swim near the plant

where he worked, diving from limestone towers

into the deep water of the quarries.


That was before what happened in our town surfaced

as lesions on the skin.  Now the old men

from the plant who used to wade calf-deep in PCBs


are dying of leukemia, the children still-born, or, like me,

growing up in the scruffy woods, waiting for summer

when we dived off of high towers into the cool green


dumping grounds of the old men’s poison.

But it’s bigger than that, bigger even than the secret

death I think is going on beneath my skin.


If you drive just outside of town

you come to the landfill where labels peel off

but the products remain, patented generations


under a film of earth.  At the end of the day

the last, loaded pickup trucks climb to the dump site,

leaking milk cartons, plastic toys, hula hoops,


dusty tire rims, and the man atop the bulldozer

smokes a cigarette as he waits to seal the broken earth.

Beyond the dump the hills are tossed


with red pine; in the empty sky turkey buzzards

hover like tiny hands.  This is something

the mind can grasp.  But below the earth


these things endure: the migration of chemicals,

rates of mutation, plumes of dioxin spreading

like a drop of ink through a glass of water.



(from Impure. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1999)












Tony Barnstone teaches at Whittier College and is the author of 18 books and a music CD. His books of poetry include Pulp Sonnets; Beast in the Apartment; Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki; The Golem of Los Angeles; Sad Jazz: Sonnets; and Impure. He is also a distinguished translator of Chinese literature.  Awards include the Poets Prize, Grand Prize of the Strokestown International Poetry Contest, Pushcart Prize, John Ciardi Prize, Benjamin Saltman Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the California Arts Council.


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