Willis Barnstone

 

 

(USA)

 

 

 

Slum Café Playing Mousorgsky, 1947

 

The streets were winter high and cold

in the slum barrios where I walked

la capital to find an old

café where I could read. I talked

to no one but I heard my book

which was a mirror of an age

glaring all night. At dawn I took

the bus back to the orphanage.

Nothing happened but solitude

and lovers at the tables smoking

and waiters leaving me alone.

The rain, the youth, the cold I brood

on now again at midnight, poking

back to glass-bright tables not gone.

 

 

 

French Cake at Apartment of la Française, 1947

 

The year I sleep up on the roof in a

room I climb to by outdoor ladder, sun

wakes the snow volcanoes Popo and his La-

dy Ixtaccihuatl, who gleam at dawn.

Our orphanage has bean soup but I starve

for sweets, and when Paco takes me to eat

at a French dame’s elegant digs I cave

in love for Françoise, her fat crêpes, her feet

in braces up to her knees. Smiling she urges

platters of cream cakes all afternoon on us

and plays Offenbach’s La Gaité Parisienne.

I fall for older women. Young blood surges

between my virgin legs. Home on the bus,

squashed, cold, I ache for her sweet oxygen.

 

 

 

Room on the Roof of the Spanish Refugee Children’s Orphanage, 1946

 

After my father’s suicide, young Marti,

my Mexican stepmother,

goes back to the iron bed with her mother

Rebeca, a Sefardí

from Constantinople, who normally

calls me mancebito,

young lord (in medieval Ladino),

but she is afraid I’ll get

her daughter as my father had.

They rent some rooms behind

the great cathedral, a small hovel

in the old district. I too

live this year in Mexico City,

near Marti, in an orphanage.

If I can’t make it back by ten

(I give evening classes

all over the city to earn some pesos)

I do an all nighter,

reading in a lowdown café, or better,

go to Marti’s and sleep

on a straw mat on the floor

between the tiny Indian maid

and her brother Sam, an army captain.

Often when I am broke

I sell my blood in a clinic, and on

one Saturday twice—but not

in the same place. The Aztec nurse

notices the fresh pricks

but she lets me through. Beautiful Marti

is only three years older than me

 

and before my father made his move

she was my first date.

I care for her and never know

that the mere sale

of my blood is for her a stigma

God will not forgive

but who could not forgive us for

necking in the backseat

of Dad’s Buick. In the morning

as my train pulls out,

she gives me a silk handkerchief.

Sewed on it a red guitar.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

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BIO

 
Willis Barnstone, born in 1927 in Lewiston, Maine, and educated at Bowdoin College, the Sorbonne, School of Oriental Studies of the University of London, Columbia and Yale (PhD), taught in Greece at the end of the civil war (1949-51), was in Haiti in 1960 during the deadly rule of Papa Doc and in Buenos Aires during the Dirty War (1975-1976). He was in China during the Cultural Revolution in 1972 invited by Chou Enlai. A Fulbright Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University (1984-1985). Former O’Connor Professor of Greek at Colgate University (1973), he is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Spanish at Indiana University. He lives in Oakland, California

 

A Guggenheim fellow, he has received the NEA, NEH, ACLS, W.H. Auden Award of NY Council on the Arts, Midland Authors Award, four Book of the Month selections, four Pulitzer nominations, six awards from Poetry Society of America, including the Emily Dickinson Award. In 2015 he received the Fred Cody Life Achievement Award in 2015. His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Harper’s, New York Review of Books, Paris Review, Poetry, New Yorker, Times Literary Supplement. He has published 80 books with trade and university presses. His new volume is Poets of the Bible: from Solomon’s Song of Song to John’s Revelation, Norton, 550pp.

 

Some poetry books are A Day in the Country (Harper) Life Watch (BOA Mexico in My Heart : Moonbook & Sunbook (Tupelo Books), New and Selected Poems (Carcanet), Stickball on 88th Street (Red Hen Press), Café de l’Aube à Paris / Dawn Café in Paris (Sheep Meadow Press); translations include Poetics of Translation (Yale), ABC of Translation: Poems & Drawings (Black Widow), Ancient Greek Lyrics(Indiana), Restored New Testament (Norton), The Gnostic Bible (Shambhala), The Other Bible (Harper); memoir books are SundayMorning in Fascist Spain  (Southern Illinois), We Jews and Blacks (with Yusef Komunyakaa), and With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires (Illinois). Borges has written, “Four of the best things in America are Walt Whitman’s Leaves, Herman Melville’s Whale, the sonnets of Willis Barnstone’s Secret Reader, and my daily Corn Flakes – the rough poetry of morning.” Harold Bloom describes his version of the New Testament as “a superb act  of restoration.”

 

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