Tony Barnstone







Foreword: Pocketful of Coins (Aphorisms on Poetry)




Jorge Luis Borges writes that in dream a coin has only one side and behind the faces in dreams there is the void.  In poems, too.


People fear poetry because they think they need their Batman decoder ring to understand it.  But a poem is not a lock that is waiting for the right key to open it up.  A poem is a key and our brains are the locks.


Poems are like sex.  The opening up gives us pleasure, and a different pleasure each time. The poem can never enter the same me twice.  There never is the same me twice.


If I had a silver dollar I would buy that Batman decoder ring.  I think it would tell me that the poem’s secret meaning is “I.”


There are many entryways to the underworld, but it is difficult to find them.  They are rips in spacetime through which madness fluxes and gibbers.  They are secret stairwells down.  Step out of the light of language and walk through the semantic shadow.  Put two coins on your eyelids and die into sleep.


We think we think rationally, keeping things separate: sun from tangerine, horse from writing desk, but in fact we think through metaphor, which is to say we think through dream, where the horse is a galloping writing desk and the sun is a bleeding tangerine.


I write through conceptual rhyme: the moon can be an illuminated clockface, can be the shining face of a tossed coin, can be a flying white Frisbee.  If I put those images into a poem I don’t need to make metaphor.  The mind will unconsciously categorize—round things, floating things, white things, glowing things, things with faces, things with dark sides, things that carry time—and these images will begin to resonate with each other along new neural strings.


In dreams, a coin has only one face, Borges says.  I say the mind is not a hall of mirrors but the space behind the mirror where the coin can be exchanged for the moon and the moon can be tossed like a Frisbee.  Reach out your hand.  Catch the moon I’ve tossed you and put in your pocket.  When you take it out again, it will be something else.  But for now, it’s yours, a magician’s coin, a pocket watch’s quietly clicking heart.




Newton’s First Law of Motion



The sun eats itself to make light,

such a burning up of matter

in the name of doesn’t matter

and cosmic need, and yet in the world

of things there is recycling,

like the roadside black-eyed Susans

breathing in sunlight in the holy

photosynthesis that swells everything

with green fire, all those calories

like a spirit bottled in bodies and trying

to escape, which is why as I rest

after my bike ride my heart tries

to batter its way out of my chest.

A squirrel watching me talk this poem

into my iPhone sits on its haunches

and gnaws a flame of seeded grass,

its muscles electric with shivers of fear

and desire as everything wildfires past:

campers, lovers, joggers,

bikers scattering like lightning,

sunlit wings spinning into heaven,

wetsuit swimmers on black fire

as they step out of the ocean’s id,

all this wasted motion, this waste

of energy, this wasteland, this paradise

of California, the sun a coin

in the green fingers of the palms,

bougainvillea purple down the cliff side,

such a punk hairdo, and me

trying to lose my excess matter

from too much nibbling by riding my bike

past bikini joggers toward Malibu

and then coming to rest here,

watching this squirrel watch me catch

some sun, two days before I turn fifty.


Soon I’ll mount my bike again and ride

back home, and then tonight out

to sushi with Tasha and maybe we’ll rub

against each other to see what might spark,

then fall into sleep like a torch

thrown down into a well, splash,

but for now it’s still that energy

and entropy, the strut of the pigeon

along the rail, with its apple-bobbing head,

little popping devil red eyes

under the great sun which I pinch

between my fingers and watch

as it winks out, like me tonight in bed,

alone, because without God

I have love, and without love

I have sex, and without sex

I have the dream of a way to pray,

to the stupas of her breasts, the mosque

of her smile and that burning bush

which catches everything

on fire, the monkey mind leaping

from branch to flaming branch,

a life given to the pyre of work

and the bonefire of consumption,

and the skyfire raining influence,

and the wooden Buddha on my desk

raising one hand as if to warn me

and gazing at me with cool

sorrow through the flames.




Beast in the Apartment



I found the lion in my living room

curled on the carpet, licking his red claws,

and he looked up, haloed with fur,

a bloom of blood around his smile,

and yawned his jaws so wide

I saw between his great black lips

my world in all its flaming symmetry,

the corona of cities, people tithing to war ships

that rip the blue sky-fabric of the sea,

falling towers and those trapped underneath,

the trillion suns like sparkles

on his tongue, each planet crushed

like a mint between his teeth.


I won’t say this was a dream.

How could it be?  I felt the hot rubber

of his lips, the tongue’s wet slubber,

the sirocco of his breath steaming my face

as I gripped those jaws and wrestled

in a whirl with the dumb beast.


I won’t claim this was a vision.

It was the lion for real this time,

the beast whose hunched muscle

I’d always sensed in the dark apartment,

whom I’d known only by long scribbles

of yellow hair left on the couch,

and the shadow paws that push me

down into the bed at night.

Now here he was, upright beast

playing claw-piano on my back

and letting out a bomb blast roar

as we knocked lamps to the floor and danced.


At last, he rolled on his side and gazed

from carnivorous amber eyes

as if to say, “Stroke me, I won’t attack.”

“Simba,” I said, and lost my hands

inside the nimbus of his mane,

and then I felt my way down

to his haunches, combed his hide,

the reddened prairie of his wheatgrass pelt

until it seemed it was my own body streaking

like yellow lightning across the veldt,

and I felt the slender springbok neck

between my teeth, pulsing, and bellowed

with all the joyous pain of being

soiled with lion funk, rank and dancing,

a fifty year old man in a lion suit.


I won’t say this is true, but it’s true

when I come home the frizzy neighborly

lap cats leave off from chasing squirrels,

and come snuffling up to me like kittens,

and though this lion with sinews that stretch

like symbols into the infinite and the carnal

will curl up and go to sleep again

will go back to being a paper lion,

unreal but leaving remembrances

coiled yellow on my carpets,

I still feel its oven breath, the arc lamps

of its eyes, and feel its great paw at night

pushing me down into the shadow cave

where the rest of my self

breathes asleep, never to be known,

never to be born for real.




Pages from The Book of the Damned



A naked man.  The street crowd crowds away

from his drooped loins.  A huge black whale that swims

the sky and drips red drops as if being flayed

by the celestial swordfish.  The great swarms

of frogspawn spilling down.  Blizzards of snails.

Lights that scream down the sky, bright bars,

are secretly reporting the strange tales

of how we humans think—their home is Mars.

Shivering, he walks exposed to those who twist

away, until someone loans him an over-

coat or knots his loins in handkerchiefs.

Thus naked facts that startle scientists

are diapered over with conventions, with cover-

ups, and with explanations for all ifs.



All men are liars, and yet—terrified horses

hoofing a storm of frogs.  I have collected

two hundred ninety seven records of

showers of living things, and there are forces

that have rained coffins and pajamas and affected

whole towns with falling clocks while people shove

their way to shelter to stop time from killing

them.  But inanimate things fall because

of whirlwinds, fall alone, not in great pods

of bathtubs, underwear, and golden fillings.

A scientific logic: red worms fell

in Sweden since in Sweden red worms fell.

Hoaxes, yarns.  What’s the specific weight

of a lie?  How am I to segregate?



Here is the matter: frogs and fish and worms.

Here’s what’s the matter: they fall from the air.

Here is the motion: hops and flops and squirms

on city roofs.  Here’s the emotion: fear.

So the bespectacled ones in white coats

peruse the spectacle, killing what’s odd

with explanations, sinking heaven’s boats

with weight of logic, and so they drown God.

Regardless of what I might think at times

I hereby state that God is not an id-

iot who gibbers earthquakes.  He who tames

the lion in the circus ring of truth,

dismissing aliens and giant squid,

first must put his head inside the mouth.



My job is to collect what deviates,

apparitions, purple Englishmen,

reported growth of hair on the bald pates

of mummies, girls who screamed at nothing, then

dropped unconscious.  Who knows if I’m fit

or mad, a humorist or scientist,

if I am literary or just lit

on heroin injected in the wrist?

I try to stay collected when they say

I’ve gone to pieces.  Screams, a wedding bell,

babble that turned delirium that day,

a pile of lace and legs, the bridegroom fell

into the cake, an ambulance, I take

notes on such things—and try to stay awake.




A Watch from Istanbul



1. A Watch from Istanbul


One day my mother gave my patrimony

to me, this piece of ticking time-scuffed gold.

“You’ll need a safe deposit box,” she told

me, but I put it in a drawer.  It’s money,

stored at the bank, I thought, but in this drawer

behind the stapler, Scotch Tape, bowl of dimes

and tacks, its secret shines.  In narrow times

I hold its heavy gold and feel less poor.

I don’t know how to open this blank watch

pored over by some jeweler from the city

the Greeks called just i polis, just “the City”:

Constantinople, Istanbul.  The latch

eludes me, though I close my eyes and feel

it shudder in my hand—the hidden wheel.


2. Watchworks


It’s such a thing as Jewish goldsmiths made

in that Byzantium ruled by the Turks,

made of fired glass and gold with secret works

I pry at with a penknife’s useless blade.

The latch eludes me though I try to feel

it like a blind man, feel the surface change,

the subtle crack which opens to the strange

interior of stars and jewels and steel,

the clockwork universe inside its mind

where the Imam twirls his cloudy beard; the dance

of harem girls whirls wildly in the laps

of Sultan and Vizier; and in a trance

a fakir sings of unknown things.  Perhaps

the secret maker has no name to find.


3. Watchmaker


The spring of 1869, a Turk

looks at rough diamonds at a little stand,

in wooden boxes, behind wirework.

They came from Visapore by caravan.

And on a table (a string of pearls, a few

Brazilian topaz, glittering dragonflies,

rubies the sheen of beetle wings), there lies

the mainspring of the watch, made by some Jew,

his name unknowable, a bent-backed hinge

picking through jewels two years before the strange

works of the universe would make him change

at Ellis Island—maybe to Goldman?

Pearlman?  The Turk steps through the beaded fringe

and that world quivers, closes like a fan.


4. Watchman 


One day you stub your foot upon a bone.

You pick it up and wonder what to call

the thing it was, what kind of animal.

You turn it over, find it’s just white stone.

And now, oh well, it has no past. It’s rock.

One day you find a watch dropped on the stair

and you don’t think it’s always rested there.

It had a maker, like the world, since no clock

designs itself, so goes one argument.

“A bivalve’s coupled shells aren’t made to plan,

though they resemble hinges forged by man,”

writes Darwin in response.  In that event,

we all are random meat, brains full of stones,

skinbags, springjoints, ball-and-socket bones.


5. City of Leopards


Eternal city who kept changing names,

Byzantium, Constantinople, and

now Istanbul, I hold you in my hand:

the Hippodrome whose crowds watched carnal games

with bears and birds and the great cats released

to slay, the Golden Gate used only by

the Emperor, the crowds, the carts piled high

with cardamom and cumin from the East.

When the crusaders slashed their way inside

Byzantium, the Emperor loosed beasts

into the street, expecting them to feast

upon his enemies.  The lions died

beneath the lance, but leopards knew to flee,

escaping through the fields, like history.


6. Signature


The leopards with their round green eyes, their long

and wavering bodies in the moonlight passed

beneath the olive trees into the past,

fugitive breaths, beautiful as a song.

What’s left is this old watch closed as a fist,

a thing my mother calls my heritage,

gold heart belonging to another age.

I turn the knob and listen to the tick.

One hundred years, another hundred years.

Each hundred years, the planet disappears

and this remains— a watch found on a shore,

unmarked except where random scratches whirl,

and if such scratches are a signature,

they signify our absence from the world.














Tony Barnstone is The Albert Upton Professor of English at Whittier College and the author of seventeen books, a chapbook of poems, and a music CD. His books of poetry include Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, winner of the John Ciardi Prize in Poetry (BKMK Press); The Golem of Los Angeles, winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award in Poetry (Red Hen Press); Sad Jazz: Sonnets (Sheep Meadow Press); and Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone (University of Florida Press). He earned his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and is also a distinguished translator of Chinese poetry and literary prose, including The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (edited and translated with Chou Ping, Anchor Books); The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (translated with Chou Ping, Shambhala); Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry, Wesleyan University Press; Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei (translated with Willis Barnstone and Xu Haixin, University Press of New England); River Merchant’s Wife by Ming Di (translated from the Chinese by Tony Barnstone, Neil Aitken, Afaa Weaver, Katie Farris & Sylvia Burn with the author, Marick Press); and Chinese Erotic Poems (Everyman).   He is also an editor of several world literature literary textbooks.


Among his awards are the Pushcart Prize in Poetry, a fellowship from the California Arts Council, the Poets Prize, a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, and many others.


Recently, he has been doing multimedia work, working with artist Dorothy Tunnell to make a poetry graphic novel,  with artist Amin Mansouri to make an illustrated book of poems based on classic pulp fiction, and with artist Alexandra Eldridge to make a poetry deck of cards. In 2013 with singer-songwriters John Clinebell and Ariana Hall he put out a grammy-nominated CD of original music based on his book of WWII poems, titled Tokyo Burning: WWII Songs. His new book of poems, Beast in the Apartment, is forthcoming in 2014 (Sheep Meadow Press). His selected poems, Buda en Llamas: Antología poética (1999-2012), will appear in a bilingual Spanish-English edition with Ediciones El Tucán de Virginia (Mexico City) in 2014, with translations by Mariano Zaro.  Two anthologies Dead and Undead Poems and Human and Inhuman Monstrous Verse, co-edited with Michelle Mitchell-Foust, will appear in 2014 and 2015 with Everyman Press.


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