Tony Barnstone







The Strangeness


Small stars are shining in the sand light,

and here by me, skirt splashed like melted glass,

is beautiful you, Gwyneth, curled on the beach blanket

watching breakers fail to break the shore,


watching a sail rip the sky in two

as a couple walks toward us on the dark sand by the surf,

feet unsynced, hips bumping, laughing.

With her arm about his waist she pulls him close,


then swings him out like a dancer, kisses him,

and then still linked, hip touching hip, they turn their heads

to see where sunlight oilslicks the water

and wind pushes seagulls off their flight paths,


then calms the trouble of the sea to sea glass.

Like surfers sitting on the surface and watching swells

for what might rise, on our blanket riding sand

we watch, too, what surfaces and washes past.



What rises is a rain of images inside the mind:

a helicopter bottleflies across the ocean sky,

mosquito-whines in the conch shell of my ear,

and now a jogger jiggles by, and now a smell of sand rot


salts the air and birth smells, death smells blow

into what’s left of my gray hair, and now

I watch the surf that turns to soapsuds, cloudwrack,

snow, a rising froth of thought approaching now,


and then the break the crush the undertow

and then the white net loosens and unties.

In being and becoming, thought thinks me, and so

in the teacups of the eyes I become the sea.



The unsynced couple stops where something dead

and strange has washed up in a tide-pool’s swale,

gelatinous and alien and pale, its shape refusing shape

inside the head. I walk up and ask, “Is that a jellyfish?”


She looks askance at the flawed glass of tentacles,

their waterfall of frozen icicles, and says, “It’s weird.

An octopus, perhaps? No, no. What is that thing?”

After some talk, they snap a shot on their camera phone,


and then walk off and leave the thing alone,

and we too gather our blanket, walk away into the utter

mystery of how we meet upon a day and on a beach

and then are claimed by twinges in the belly and music


on the freeway to your place, and then we park and walk

upstairs, and sex, and breakers in the head,

and then the long descent into the bed

before the new day drives us off to work.



And though we’ve had our year of love, and though

we broke at last against each other’s shores,

and though you’re flying off to love the pianist

in Portland and these words are washed up like debris,


inside the mind the sail that knifed the sea

has left a wake, white V written for a while upon the waves,

the way in memory the people that we were

are just now shaking the sand off the blanket


and folding, and you take my arm and squeeze

the bicep as we walk to the car, and I shift my neck

to pilfer a last, small glance at the strangeness of it all,

of all we leave behind us, gleaming on the sand.



From Beast in the Apartment, Sheep Meadow Press, 2014.




Ring of Fire


Below the Celtic circle cross stained green

and white with mold and lichen, under the stone

carved with softened letters below the bone

clouds and the slightly weepy sky––unseen,

turning to bogland, turning to peat, turning,

the Irish dead float underground, dead white,

potato-like, afflicted with the blight

of time. And there below the earth: a burning

like wheels of fire that reel within the brain,

a slow peat fire smoldering like thought, burning.

On the next hill the Norman castle’s turning

to history, piece by stone, turning again

back into Ireland, too hard a life

new turned, turned up, the bright edge of a knife.



From Beast in the Apartment, Sheep Meadow Press, 2014.




Parable of the Hunter


There is an animal that is marvelous because it doesn’t exist. Like the unicorn, when you look at it closely, it turns out to be a two-horned oryx seen from the side, or a deformed goat. And yet in the moonlight . . . . Medieval allegorists have figured the creature in their Bestiaries as a symbol of the poet’s recalcitrant inspiration or of evasive love, though modern critics have understood it as a manifestation of those elusive forms that fall between categories, such as the prose poem.


Although its meat is considered of dubious value, this is a product of ignorance. Those who know will go to almost any length to obtain it. The hunter of this beast will spend weeks in the forest listening to the trees until he has achieved the necessary silence, then will stand very still, his breaths as shallow as a Los Angeles conscience, waiting for the beast, and turning green. Centuries pass. The cities crumble like bread into the seas. The beast still has not come. By now, the hunter is half buried in the forest floor. He peers out from a tangle of strangling vines, covered with forest grubs, his long hair rooted in the earth.


For the first century, his thoughts had been rapid and filled with regret. Why am I such a fool? Even if I capture the thing, no one will care. They like the caged creatures at the zoo, with their well-studied habits and habitats, with children poking them through the bars and mustached janitors to clean up their feces. Even if I could capture it, the biologists won’t know what to call it, and so they’ll call me a fraud. And what of Mary? I told her I would be back in a week.


In the second century, his thoughts became a slow cycling like the sap inside the trees. Warmed by the sun, they would rise, driven by some hidden hydraulic pressure, and in the coolness of night they would subside and harden into a thick dreaming. In the third century, his face is cracked and brown as tree bark, and his thoughts have stilled and almost stopped, but on certain nights, as tiny full moons reflect in the dark marbles of his eyes, a great unspoken word ripples out as if from the ground and the trees themselves. It says, come! That’s all, but each month it grows louder in its silence: come! COME! COME! The beast still does not come. And slow tears well from the hunter’s eyes, crusting his cheeks with salt.


In another century, the hunter is dead. And, now that he no longer exists, the creature appears. It steps out from a fold in the air, like an actor from a stage curtain, and on long, silver legs delicately approaches the hunter’s corpse. It parts the vines and hair with its slender nose and licks the crusted salt from the hunter’s cheeks. It is so beautiful, but who is left to see it? Only the great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of the hunter, who has wandered off from the campground and gotten lost in the deep woods. He stares at the great animal with its tufts of hair like frosted wind, its wild dark eyes, its form shifting and slipping in the mind, neither this nor that. He puts out his tiny hand, and in a cracked, trembling voice calls out, Come here, puppy. Here, pup!



From The Golem of Los Angeles, Red Hen Press, 2008.




Parable of the Ghost


The man who managed the rows of identical copying machines at the photocopy store took special care of his customers, priding himself that they could count on copies that would seem the same even under the unsparing eye of an electron microscope. The store itself was a franchise store of a chain that had metastasized in mini-malls across the States and western countries, with the same decor, the same machines, the same internal layout, and the same customer service script from the mini-mall in Ayacucho in the jungles of Venezuela by the Orinoco River to the great Italian-village style outdoor walking mall of Fashion Island in Newport Beach, California.


When in a performance review his supervisors found out that he had deviated from the script, working with each customer for hours if necessary and using reams of extra paper and toner in search of the perfect copy, he was summarily fired. But as manager, he had the keys to the place, and for some months he had been living surreptitiously in the storeroom, sponge-bathing himself in the bathroom sink, eating sandwiches and sodas from the mini-fridge in the concession area. Now, instead of moving out, he padlocked the door from the inside, drew the blinds shut, and set out on the great experiment he had been cooking up in his lonely nights beneath the storeroom’s hanging bare bulb. He linked all of the machines together into one, copiers, fax machines, computers, and walked into the passport photo booth, drawing the curtain behind him like a customer at an XXX peep show, like a citizen entering a voting booth, like the wizard in a children’s book. Instantly, the machines began to copy him, generation after generation of copies, copies upon copies, versions of him ghosting through the wires and circuitry with a whir and a spark and the acrid smell of burnt flesh.


When the police broke in some days later, he was gone, but now his phantom image began to appear like a watermark in the paper of copy machines throughout the chain. The customers complained, of course, about the bearded figure who stared at them from reproductions of their tax forms and divorce papers like a wild Rasputin, but nothing could be done. He had become the flaw in the glass distorting the light, the recessive gene subverting the chromosome.



From The Golem of Los Angeles, Red Hen Press, 2008.












Tony Barnstone is Professor of English and Environment Studies at Whittier College and the author of 19 books and a music CD. He has served as the Visiting Distinguished Professor in Creative Writing in the MFA Program at Bowling Green State University and as the Visiting Professor of Translation in the Ph.D. Program at the University of California, Irvine. He has a Masters in English and Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California at Berkeley. In addition to Pulp Sonnets, his books of poetry include Beast in the Apartment; Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, winner of the John Ciardi Prize in Poetry; The Golem of Los Angeles which won the Poets Prize and the Benjamin Saltman Award in Poetry; Sad Jazz: Sonnets; and Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone, and a chapbook of poems titled Naked Magic (Main Street Rag). He is also a distinguished translator of Chinese poetry and literary prose and an editor of literary textbooks. His books in these areas include Chinese Erotic Poetry; The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry; Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry; Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang WeiThe Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters; The River Merchant’s Wife; Twenty Sonnets for Mother; and the textbooks Literatures of Asia, Africa and Latin AmericaLiteratures of Asia, and Literatures of the Middle East. His bilingual Spanish/English selected poems, Buda en Llamas: Antología poética (1999-2012) appeared in 2014. He has also co-edited the anthologies Dead and Undead Poems and Monster Verse. 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, the National Endowment for the Humanities, 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’s Burning: World War II Songs) is available on, Rhapsody, and CD Baby.   His website is



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