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.
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.
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
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.