Sam Barbee




Count stones in the dormant hearth,

consider liquors not to drink, caress

a matchbook of unignited arguments

news wadded under heartwood tinder.


When shall I light candles for the dead:

for broken brothers from Philadelphia,

those unwound sisters in New Orleans,

small heroes from the small town


where crosses outnumber glutted silos,

where scarecrows outnumber

children sleeping well at night,

without singing the forlorn lullaby.


Too much singing ignites my hymn

for those who were finding out

what mattered and what did not

in matters of elements and fables.


So many thoughts circle

during the moment when those chosen

gather as fettered memory

like wax from a final candle.



Palette, pentimento, chiaroscuro

discipline and dignity with stained fingers

swatches across white smocks, long shirts.


Noble and soothing, grace notes

adagio, intermezzo, fortissimo

gut-wrench beauty on breath, against reed.


Estrange alter-ego. Luminous idioms:

iamb, trochee, stumbling spondee

rising or falling, brazen and inviolate.


Legibility, fused volatility, scuttle

of reticent ghosts, surfacing in the moment

on the monument – the innocents.


Reformation, each sun a star

each pivot a flair, a star flare

every moon a plea: moon convenes.


The Vetting

Wind shakes droplets off autumn leaves

sunrise dries the weakening that remain;

Walkers tethered to well-bred dogs stroll sidewalks

pups drink water from puddles;


Siamese cats curled inside bay windows

watch cardinals gavotte above grubs;

Sun’s shimmer imparts from a distant ridge

long leaf pines refract the crystalline rays;


Dead azaleas along the avenue shiver

dried intent piles along concrete walls;

Sunday morning’s steam off asphalt is pure

communions partaken on rigid oak pews;


Two homeless men perch on the corner

clothes damp beneath boughs;

Hollow men’s spangled eyes look down the street

heretics wrapped in wrong-season’s vestments;


Churches adjourn and freshened well-wishers emerge

bumper glimmer dished to those on the curb;

Rumpled, the damaged prowl where worms never die

while the saved open menus and squint and whine.


Bound Papers

I crane in my starched white collar

to scour every doorway, between bridge girders,

anywhere a stiff tatter of newspaper

or polyethylene might hunker.

No rusted barrels of fire. No paramedics

rattle gray hedges as the forecast grows colder.


I allow bitterness in through a sliver

of my car window, listen for faint distress.

Search for a cramped body limping through

his sleet-stung street-smart marketing.


Where is that guy in finger-less gloves?

back-lit by traffic signals. Will he

burst from a glitch? Escher sketch

emerging in a glimpse.


Nothing fills the etching I remember.

Nothing hobbles with affected wince.

Lights change. A branch splinters.

Snow polishes the parkway.


Workdays proceed. On a concrete median,

a red cord binds a bundle of papers.

Newsprint absorbs what assaults.

Front page events blur, and accounts

melt over the curb to disappear

into the street’s brittle web of cracks.


Apogee of Voluptuous Force

Our society of faux-apologists –

Evangelists, Quacks and Duck Hunters, Politicians,

a role call of the would-be and the has-been −

their pleas of circumstance, are noise and nostalgia.

Devising grab-bags of ill-formed excuses,

each crafts a weepy Reformation of why-and-why-knots,

seeks liberation from sin-tax. Boosted

and braced, proud in the vanguard

of rhetorical shock, living to provoke

our touchy mishmash of culture, twisting

the victim’s rant, barely broken,

seeking pardon before the parachute opens.


Like a cascade of Picassos –

voluptuous force framed by brushstrokes,

cube by cube, pulsing pigment

onto slanted faces gleaming with divine

perspiration – the caffeine of America:

comprised of the camouflaged

masks of Satan, diversions parched

and fetishes parsed word by word.

Each tear a trendy faux-apogee.

Every false-promise as hygiene,

avant-garde contrition, glycerin

to lubricate the feast.

Rolling Our Dice
-for Luna

We sing for clemency, Mr. Halley:
swing by, early for once,
a reprieve in your eighty-six years.
Supersede schedule and heaven’s
frosty intolerance with a godly visit.

Slow your trajectory this evening.
We assure genuine welcome,
gratitude like a wager for our
lover’s finger. Honored guest,
join my reveal party . . .

indulge the me, a solitary gambler.
Bestow the me's quick roll,
a radical twist of our wrist.
Share the sad seat at the table.
An unscheduled fling would

help translate transient words
against this hostile house.
Ms. Halley, so much can be re-decided
within your timeline’s orbit. You,
a celebrated rock. Me, a shadow,

a mere suitor, fighting unfriendly dice:
crapped out with snake-eyed options.
Give the me a second look
with a hand where we win.
New worthiness to tumble from our palm.

Sam Barbee
is author of the poetry collections Changes of Venue and That Rain We Needed and has been a featured poet on North Carolina Public Radio. He received the 59th Poet Laureate Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society. He lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.