Wendy Barker

El Fonographo, 2017. Mixed Media Photomontage. One-Off canvas print, hand embellished with acrylics, 3” x 5”, framed. Liz Huston.

ON SMALL TALK: AFTER AMICHAI

 

Three or four in a room, and one at the window,            

            staring beyond the glass. But what of those huddled

beneath the ceiling fan, nattering about

            grandchildren's adorable toddles, aphids on roses,

and the new deli opened only half a mile

            away? Maybe they need this mutual prattle to keep

from dwelling on the brother who last month

            shot himself in the forehead, the niece gang-raped

a week ago by frat boys, or the son's friend's

            ribs and skull cracked just yesterday by the white cop

who smacked him to the ground for selling

            a few joints. And what of the woman in the back

room, sorting old sweaters, her favorite cousin 

            shot to death by a Neo-Nazi at a Jewish Community

Center in Kansas?  Who is the one standing

            by the window, and who are those drifting toward

the sofa, needing a cushion, the softness

            of feathers ripped from a scalded, living goose?

 

AFTER THAT SHOOTING IN TUCSON

 

                        How we stared from our cushioned room

at the breaking news, crowd gunned down

                        by a Safeway. Catalinas’ brown-purple crags a backdrop

as the TV blared about the bullet through

                        a congresswoman’s skull. Over and over her name,

Gabrielle Giffords. And then, that night, as

                        President Obama’s voice urged us to act with good will,

quoting from Arnold's “Dover Beach,”

                        I quivered with the electric rush I’d felt as a girl when Daddy

read Keats to us after dinner, his tattered

                        high-school anthology in one hand, a long-ashed cigarette

in the other. The sight of those mountains,

                        the sound of a poem out loud, and I was thrown back

to the first year I taught, not far from

                        the Catalinas, when Sally, Lizbeth, and Gwen lingered

after school and we read Eliot together,

                        puzzling over his "muttering retreats," wondering  about

that "overwhelming question." Words

                        tantalizing as those of cummings. Who were "anyone"

and "noone" anyhow? But little did we know

                        as we sounded those luscious syllables, on the Salt River

Pima-Maricopa Reservation only

                        a mile away, kids younger than our little sisters were pulled

from their homes and crowded into

                        dorms at the Indian School in Phoenix where matrons

shaved their heads and showered them

                        in kerosene, stripped away their names, dressed them in

new ones like "Bobby" and "Susan." Where

                        songs of the saguaro, the dove, names of grandmothers,

mountains, the river were erased. Replaced

                        with electric clock alarms. How does anyone vanish

into noone? And how many mass shootings                        

                        in our country since outside that Safeway Gabby

Gifford's brain was shot through? Before

                        he died, I asked to record my father’s voice, his voice

I couldn’t bear to lose. “Fled is that music . . .

                        Do I wake  or sleep?” he’d murmur, as I sat upright,

breathless in my chair.  “Ah love, let us be

                        true / To one another," Obama continued.  To think that,

once, I’d believed we were learning how.

IN THE GALÁPAGOS

 

Though Melville called these islands

            a pile of "Cinders dumped here and there"

                        with "a wailing spirit," I don't want ashes

of his morbid mental state to smother

            my memory of bobbing in a fiberglass

                        panga where at first I saw only the garua,

the strato-cumulus hovering over tips

            of volcanoes, mist that drapes the rocks

                        in a whitened haze, so I wasn’t even sure

we'd reached a place that's real. It all

            shifted, the way for an instant we’d

                        see a whale’s flukes, a tail flashing above

the ocean, and gone. Then, straight

            ahead, splatters of bird droppings

                        like paint streaks on stone, but the paint

moved, the rocks teeming with

            white-feathered, blue-footed boobies,

                        their beaks and outsize feet a brighter

blue than any sky I've ever seen

            as we anchored off Isla Fernandina

                        and hiked a hummocky field of ropey

pahoehoe lava, when I almost tripped

            on a rock-black tail, no, hundreds upon

                        hundreds of iguanas warming like soft-

bellied dollops of stone, the only

            sound besides our whispering the hiss

                        of brine spewed through their nostrils,

salt-caked, white as the guano

            under them. And beyond, palo santo

                        trees, holy sticks so laced with lichen

their whiteness shimmered at noon

            as if by moonlight. Not Melville's end

                        of the world, but a beginning, air so fresh

I felt I’d grown new lungs. When

            I walked on Isla Isabella’s sand alongside

                        a Great Blue Heron, and sat down to rest

in the midst of a dozen nursing

            sea lions, I didn’t spot any of the creatures

                        our kind have carried with us, the rats

pigs, dogs, cats that eat the eggs

            of the giant tortoises. I remember

                        that, while exploring Chatham Island,

Darwin noted he'd met an "immense

            Turpin" and was mesmerized. But

                        did he know, in the years surrounding

his voyage, crews like his—and

            Melville's—hauled off thousands

                        of those tortoises, stacked them flipped

on their backs in the ship’s hold,

            where they survived for months

                        without food? I keep thinking of the flightless

cormorant—steady on her nest

            of marine grass and algae over

                        rock, on an island where nothing has

ever been mined, hammered, or

            soldered, where the lava hasn’t

                        been crumbled to pebbles—who sits

within a circle of her own

            shit, above a cloud-gray chick,

                        and one still whole, unbroken egg.