June 26, 2018

Lynne Knight


white apples and the taste of stone
—Donald Hall, “White Apples”

The old master is dead,
his gravestone already marked
with lines from a poem

by his wife, whose peonies
blossomed and toppled outside
while he lay in hospice.

Soon his granddaughter will live
in the ancestral house looking out
at blue Mount Kearsarge.

The curved ribs of old horses
buried in the field will again yield
their crop of goldenrod.

Dark clouds over Eagle Pond
turn white as the taste of stone,
white as white apples.

from Poets Respond


Lynne Knight: “I spent much of Sunday mourning the death of Donald Hall, who taught me much of what I know about poetry when I was his student at the University of Michigan. Much later, we had a correspondence over twenty years that sometimes included the exchange of poems. I’ve been re-reading some of his letters, and I came upon this: ‘I want the poem to be as hard as a piece of sculpture, and as immovable, and as resolute, and as whole. I want every word in it to be absolutely inevitable … but another part of the requirement, by and large, is that it should not seem so.’ Then he quoted Yeats: ‘A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought …’ His letter begins: ‘I love talking about this stuff.’ Donald Hall gave so much to the world of letters that I wanted to mark his death with a small poem that evokes his life and work, borrowing his image in the last two lines (“white apples and the taste of stone”). I don’t know if this poem does evoke him, but among many, many other things, he taught me to be persistent.” (web)

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July 13, 2017

Jennifer Rane Hancock


in memoriam, Brent Doeden July 10, 2017

Captain Earthman is dead. At the end of the
Anthropocene, as we await Thor: Ragnarok,
as an iceberg the size of Delaware
falls from Antarctica like a doomed hero,
our angels have also fallen. Bowie
would have asked whose shirt he wore.
These last days, and aren’t all days these days
last days, we who need hope texted him:
246 R12 beers pls.
And he came,
from as far away as first base, as far away
as Earth, man, where baseball used to be
green. He came with our beers and our hope
that the fires in Arizona won’t touch
Talking Stick. And beer and hope
are all we have now, these last days of baseball,
as Arizona burns and California, Utah,
and Colorado burn and keep burning
through irrigated and stadium-lit fields.
Brent Doeden
told the Denver Post he’d like
to die abducted by aliens. He knew the thin,
clear air above Red Rocks, could jog
the steps with twenty beers when he was young.
So he’d know. He’d say take me home, guys.
I’ve spend enough time here and they haven’t
learned anything. Peace, love, all that hippie
shit on my harness pins, the rainbow flags
in my Rockies cap.
And we who need
hope more than beer will text numbers his
daughter will read in Hawaii: 119 R3. 211 R9.
Coordinates in baseball as important
as the 6-4-3 double play. They mean us.
We. Here.
  In the safety of Coors Field,
while the world burns and Bowie’s voice
on vinyl floats through the open windows
in Capitol Hill where the Beats used to beatnik.
Captain Earthman has boarded the mothership
and we who need anything and everything
but will settle
for beer are waiting
for him through the last days of baseball,
which are the last days of cool spring
training games and rain-drenched post-seasons,
the last days of our time here on earth.

Poets Respond
July 13, 2017

[download audio]


Jennifer Rane Hancock: “I’m writing a series of poems about how baseball will be affected by climate change. Captain Earthman, Brent Doeden, was a vendor at Coors Field (as well as Mile High, Red Rocks, and spring training games in Arizona). His death hit me hard, as he always reminded me of my dad who died four years ago. They were both fascinated with space, and consummate performers. Dad would have made a great beer vendor. Captain Earthman leaves us to watch the game change as the earth changes, and we are at a loss, a lack of political will, to do anything about it. I don’t know if he was an environmentalist. Likely not. He was an entertainer first and foremost. But in the week of his death, both Mayor Hancock of Denver (no relation) and Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper both pledged to uphold the Paris Accords in defiance of President Trump’s position. All of those things coming together, as we deal with one of the worst fire season in the west in years, led to this poem.” (website)

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July 8, 2015

Greg Kosmicki


In Memoriam, J.W.

It’s 1:30 a.m. or so, and a little while ago
I ate a banana.
I got up from the kitchen table
and dropped the peeling into the trash can
then ate an orange that I peeled
all in a long continuous strip
and dropped that in the trash too.
The orange, like all oranges,
was tart and burned my dry winter lips
a little when I ate it.

Whenever I peel an orange that way
I think of this guy I used to know
at my job who was a nice guy
but on the opposite end of the spectrum
from me politically.
He used to peel his oranges
then hang the skin
on the wall of his cubicle.
I never asked him about it
but guessed he did that
because there was always
only one fresh orange peel spiral
hanging from his cubicle wall.

He was a guy who believed in a literal
interpretation of the Bible
however it was that his preacher
happened to literally interpret it
so he’d get visibly angry sometimes
when we talked and I would say stuff
that I knew would piss him off
just to see him get all flustered
see his eyes narrow a bit
shoulders hunch or sometimes
he would draw back
look down his nose at me
like he was examining
a dangerous species of insect
before he found some way
to crush it.
Even though he was weird that way
I always kind of liked him
maybe because he was an old farm kid
from far out in the central part of Nebraska
and I was an old farm kid from even farther out
in western Nebraska, only I maybe
fell in with a crazy crowd and smoked dope
and dropped acid in the navy
while he walked the straight and narrow
in the army and held on
to all those home-grown values.

He was a master with the copy machine—
I, the kind of person who makes them jam up
just walking by—
so one day I asked him how he knew so much
about copy machines.
He kind of swelled up with pride
said he’d been some kind of printing technician
in the army.

But there at our job he had a hard time
adjusting to changes
and our job was always changing
thanks to cuts in funding
and a general overall attitude
of contempt for the poor
our right-wing governor had
in the red-necked state
we lived in and worked for.
I was the guy’s boss so I knew
the tough time he had adjusting
and I knew how he bucked the system
his own way by trying
to continue using all the old ways
because they were better.

One time before he got sick he told me
he was having trouble with his son
he was worried about him
who kept getting towed at his apartment
because he wouldn’t buy a sticker
or something goofy like that.
I felt queasy he would confide in me
about anything, especially his son
though it seemed like he was just making
dumb mistakes, nothing major like meth
or addictions to something else
like my kid that I’d never
shared with him, and never would have.
I thought his kid was being stupid
but didn’t say that and listened
father-to-father as though
he was telling me something truly shocking.
I told him tell your kid
buy the freaking permit
and he had, but there was some
excuse. That’s the closest we ever got
but I never could figure out
why he talked to me about it.
It was a closeness that I’d never felt
we either one had earned.

He was diabetic and overweight
but always ate carefully, low-carb,
took a walk in the lunch hour
to keep his weight down.
Explained to me how diabetics
can’t burn up carbs like normal.
He always said “Be careful”
as a way to send you off
at the end of the day
when most people would say
“See you tomorrow” or “Be good.”
One angry client took it wrong
one time and I had to defuse him—
“What did he mean by that—‘Be careful’—
was that a threat?”
The last time I saw him, he was heading out
for the weekend, had on a pair
of shooter’s goggles,
made me think somehow
of James Dickey, though I never told him
because I would have had to explain.
I talked to his wife on the phone
because she called in to say
he’d be out for tests
or for another two weeks
or that he’d be back
or they’ve got to do more surgery
or that he wasn’t coming back.
He’s the last guy I thought
would die out of all the people
I’ve worked with
who smoked cigarettes,
drank sodas, ate junk
and never exercised.
On a routine visit
it was the dentist
who spotted
the lesion.

I think of him every time I peel an orange
whether I can get that one continuous strip going or not.
No matter if I’m at home or work,
peeling an orange for breakfast
or like tonight, alone in the kitchen
waiting out stuff, I think of him
and wonder which one of us
was right, or if there is such a thing
as right or wrong
whether he deserved to die
if God was watching over him
and me, and if he let me live on
to think of him somehow to keep
him alive that way,
why it passed we came to work together,
and if I had been first to die
is there anything he would have remembered me by.

from Rattle #47, Spring 2015


Greg Kosmicki: “I’ve thought for years about my co-worker—always reminded of him the way the poem says, and tried writing it a couple times. When I peeled this orange, maybe the thousandth since then, I realized the orange spiral was the trigger, so I started with that, then wrote out everything about us that had been bumping around in my head ten or so years.”

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August 12, 2014

Fred D. White


in memoriam, William Barker, Ph.D.

“Take a deep breath,” said Bill,
my physicist colleague, soon to retire.
I did so, theatrically, and he proclaimed,
just as theatrically, that three
of the atoms among the molecules of air
I’d just inhaled were the very atoms
Jesus breathed.
As a scientist, he could assure me
that what had been a part of Him
was literally, this moment,
a part of me—and so on, with every breath I took.
Ever since his death, I’ve been trying
to estimate (inhaling deeply),
how many atoms of Bill’s were sporting now,
with Jesus’s, inside my lungs.

from Rattle #20, Winter 2003

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August 24, 2014

Sonia Greenfield


In Memoriam James Foley

They’ve said that the jihadist
narrator spoke in an East London accent, that
the journalist in orange kneeled on the ground, that
he may have denounced America before
the knife met throat and cut back. I’ll never know
beyond what they’ve said on the radio
as I tune it to Morning Becomes Eclectic
meaning just music. In San Marino
after four years, the Titan Arum
is about to bloom, but you can call it
a corpse flower. I thought that it would look different,
the flower I mean. More like the enormous meaty
flowers of Borneo and less like a new monk stripping
away his purple robes, though they both
pollinate by flies drawn to the scent. Look
them up online. I won’t watch how the event
unfolds, yet I hold in my imagination
his mother’s hand hovering above the mouse,
cursor blinking over that play arrow, to say nothing
of its barbed end.

Poets Respond
August 24, 2014

[download audio]


Sonia Greenfield: “I’d like to think poetry can remind us that politics has a rich emotional life. Furthermore, whenever I think about the brutality of man, I inevitably think about the mothers.” (website)

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January 8, 2013

Jesse S. Fourmy


     In memoriam, Ken T. Murphy,
     d.11/24/2009, Honolulu

My friend, in the wake of the Leonids,
your death, your long journey from Duluth.
Are you still surprised to have found
your parents’ marriage certificate
hidden in the family bible—
precious as a maple’s golden leaf?
Bastard through high school—who knew?
I admit I still laugh about it now,
this very minute while I write.
The way you told it over dinners
reminds me of how human we are
despite convention, despite reservations.
I can’t help my sadness thinking about you
and the last time we spoke at your home.
You offered us tea but we declined.
Now, I wished we’d stayed longer.
But in our youth we felt the urge to go
because our kids were tearing through your flowers.
I was embarrassed and thought it bothered you.
Now I realize you simply wanted company.
You’d called looking for a muscle man
to lift your television set and we came over.
You told us about your lifespan, how nobody
in your condition was expected to live as long.
I felt there was more in the way you said it,
in the way your eyes sparkled when we left.

from Rattle #37, Summer 2012
Tribute to Law Enforcement Poets

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June 30, 2011

Review by Maya Jewell Zeller

by Caleb Barber

Red Hen Press
P.O. Box 40820
Pasadena, CA 91114
ISBN-13 978-1-59709469-6
2010, 104 pp., $19.95

In the effort of full disclosure I would like to say that Caleb Barber is dating my best friend. Okay, they’re more than dating—they live together. They even have chickens together, and a cat named Ivan. That’s why when I decided to write a review about Caleb’s new book, Beasts & Violins, I felt like it might be nepotism. And it might be—except that Caleb and I are not all that close. I mean, I like Caleb. I admire what my friend Rachel refers to as his strong set of personal morals—a code he has developed for himself, because he is human, because he believes one should do good not because that person belongs to any formal church or any governing body, but because it is right. And in doing what is right there are necessary flaws. So, though I do admire this, I don’t know Caleb all that well. But I do know that his poems seem to follow a similar trajectory of doing what is best because it is best for the poem, not for Poetry with a capital P or for the Po Biz, or even for the speaker who, if we’re honest with ourselves (as I think Barber would have us be), we can assume is some version of Barber himself.

This speaker often admits his (and others’) flaws (in person, Caleb laughingly calls this “exploring the personal jerk”), but if we look closely, we notice these shortcomings are often in service of someone else’s emotional stability or in some way offer a favor to the universe (sometimes via a wry humor). Take, for example, the poem “Dear Old Dads,” in which the speaker declares “I’ve been making weekly trips/ to the sanitarium,/ telling all the whackos/ I’m their son,” or the poem “Beast in Me,” in which the speaker confesses to the girl he’s broken up with that he misled her over and over, as in “When I said I would take you camping,/ I meant I would wait until you went/ away to Spain, then go to the hills by myself.” At the end of this same poem, when the ex-girlfriend is complaining to the speaker’s best friend, the speaker admits “Honey, I was only a few blocks away,/ putting the moves on someone new.” Indeed, there does seem to be a kind of beast inside a person who would lie to the elderly and to vulnerable women, but those Dear Old Dads may have found a glimpse of kindness, and the girl he’s putting the moves on might just hang around long enough to be the subject of the book’s closing poems, all somehow about love and redemption, about kindness and the vulnerability of one who’s found a certain music in life.

There is music in the speaker’s life, and there is music in these poems. Though it would be reductive to say Barber is simply derivative of Richard Hugo, he is certainly a descendant. Of course, I’m not the first to say it–Tess Gallagher points this out in a pre-promotional blurb, calling Hugo one of Barber’s “recognizable mentors”–and even Barber’s poem “Over Breakfast” takes its epigraph, “When that rare tourist comes, you tell him/ you’re not forlorn,” from Hugo, telling us

At the Lyman Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge,
I’m reading Richard Hugo while waiting
for my omelet. Then I close the book
and try harder at fitting in. I drink more coffee,
stretch in my seat.

The dish boy wilts in steam. I secretly suspect
the waitress is upset with me
for taking up a whole booth on my own.

You can hear some of the cadence (and internal slant rhyme, and echoes of image) of that old Northwest master in those lines for sure, and in many of the book’s other poems. These poems sing of human experiences casually and beautifully, making clear that Barber is a student of poetic craft—in its myriad forms—and of humanity, in all its terrible transfigurations. Take “In a Twilight Town,” in which the speaker tells us “At these hours a girl shows me the scar/ she earned after her father’s chainsaw/ bucked against her calf while he evened/ the backyard stumps.” There’s no overt metaphor here, but the suggestion of metaphor—that no matter how hard a person tries to make beauty, the byproduct is pain, or at least injury—is echoed throughout the rest of the poem, as we learn more about this girl’s difficult life, which is one destined, it seems, for further complications. The girl explains the injury, and the poet’s description that follows leads us to thinking not about the girl, or the situation, but about America, and what we do in our efforts to make beauty:

                               “It cut clear to my meat,”
she says. “They had to fly me to the city.”
The rough, shiny lump is not grotesque.
Her leg has grown around the wound
same as how trees will hatchet strikes.

She still wears skirts, for now, because
her body won’t be a woman’s for a few
more years, and free magazine offers
don’t come this far out in the country.

It would be easy to miss the simile that compares her leg to a tree, and implies her father was evening the stump of her as he did those in the backyard. Yet, because her body still belongs to childhood, and her childhood to its innocent geography, she “still wears skirts.” And the speaker, who himself belongs to the world of beasts, feels a tenderness toward the girl. He mentions some things he’d like to know, like “how/ the couch felt when it froze through./ But the plane for the mail route is spinning on/ and this place will always be her stop.” As readers, we are left with some of the same curiosity the speaker might have felt, and perhaps the same reverence for unknowing. The speaker recognizes that his conversation with the girl, like twilight, is a rare moment between two worlds, and it won’t last long. He will return to his life, and she to hers, where we can only imagine what happens to her. Meanwhile, “The night makes us all older, and just walking/ toward it, she covers her thighs with the dark.”

So we are left in the dark, like the speaker, who throughout the collection unveils slowly how ignorant he feels of so many of the world’s mysteries, even as he masks this with a bravado, a persona who makes jokes about the people who surround him. Late in the collection, the speaker has been invited to talk about his deceased uncle in “At the Dedication.” He begins: “I didn’t know how to say to the crowd/ I hardly knew the man. I was just shy/ of five when he died.” I proclaimed earlier that the speaker and the author of this book, though obviously distinct, are not completely mutually exclusive. This poem is direct evidence of that. For the past four years, the town of Clatskanie, Oregon, has held an annual Raymond Carver Writing Festival, in celebration and memoriam of Caleb Barber’s late uncle. Part of what’s appealing to me, and what echoes the speaker’s sentiments of being “no ambassador to the dead,/ no dignitary worthy of write-offs,” is that Carver is never mentioned in the poem. So the poem does in its form what it proclaims in its voice—reassures us that it isn’t really an authority. In fact, it seems to hint (much like Twain does in his epigraph to Huck Finn) that there is really no moral in the narrative of life, and that none of us can ever get it right (we can only try). And this proclamation, though perhaps flawed or disappointing, may be more moral, closer to a moral code, than it would be to offer us wisdom. The wisdom is in knowing what not to say—and the poems in Beasts and Violins incidentally say a lot through omission.

In the end, these poems don’t give us any grand revelations about life other than the naked truth, if the truth can be considered a grand revelation. Though it comes at the beginning of the second section, the poem “For the Topless Girls in the Brewery Gulch” does a nice job illustrating the spare quality of the book’s poetry. As the title of the poem suggests, Barber doesn’t romanticize the moment in the slightest:

With wet fur coats framing naked tits,
you danced in the New Year
on the narrow drive between St. Elmo’s Bar
and the Stock Exchange Saloon.
There were three of you. A small posse
in like uniform. Your hair was stuck
to your faces, so when you shook your heads,
the strands tore off strips of foundation.
In the right street light, the negatives
looked like tiger stripes. It was raining.
Tomorrow was a holiday. Everyone knew
this desert water was poison. Of course
you were drunk.

As unappealing as the moment is, it is still memorialized in poetry, lasting forever. And there is something beautiful about strips of peeled-off makeup looking “like tiger stripes” in the rain. It is this homage to the realities of life, here and throughout the speaker’s journey, that makes the book so compelling—it sings the monster out of the mundane.

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