The Desert

He stood, sweating, gazing over the vastness
of what looked like nothingness; hot, glaring,
monochromatic landscape, broken only by an
occasional dune. His eyes batted against the
stinging bits of sand encircling his head as He
tried to catch His breath. He was, after all, Jesus
in a mortal body.

He was hungry. He had not eaten for the past
forty days. He caught sight of an approaching
figure surrounded by piercing light. The desert
floor began to vibrate. The figure was enormous
in size, and seemed to exude tremendous power.

As if reading His mind, the figure said, “Tell
these stones to become bread.” In response,
Jesus took a confident breath and said, “It is written:
‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every
word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
Although Jesus stood his ground, the figure reached
toward Him and whisked Him away.

Now, Jesus and the figure were at the Holy City,
standing on a steeple. The figure said, “If you
are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is
written, ‘He will command his angels concerning
you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that
you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered,”It is also written: ‘Do not put
the Lord your God to the test.'” The figure was
persistent in his provocation, reaching toward Jesus
again, spiriting Him away to a very high mountain,
where he showed Him all the kingdoms of the world
in all their splendor and beauty and majesty.

“All this I will give you,” said the figure,
“If you will bow down and worship me.”
“Away from me,” Jesus said, “For it is written:
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.'”
Jesus could not be tempted or drawn away by the
figure, nor did He lose His faith in God, as a result
of his encounter with the devil in the desert.

Imperfect

I sat, submissively. You stood, towering.
You, the PhD. Me the struggling artist.
My thumbnail kept picking at the edge
of the nail on my index finger.
My writing hand index finger. Odd.
You told me my poem was “okay,”
but it was not perfect.
So what, then, it was imperfect?
Faulty? Flawed? Defective? Unsound?
Wait, this was a “free verse” assignment.
It was meant to not have a regular meter.
It was supposed to simply “be.”
Perhaps my poem had “imperfect vision.”
Imperfectus: incomplete.
So you’re saying it was “missing something.”
Perhaps you don’t like unrestrained boundaries.
Your failure to appreciate poetry that is
absent fixed metrical pattern does not mean
my work has failed as poetry.
Non-metrical, non-rhyming lines often
closely follow the natural rhythms of speech.
Perhaps this is the very purpose of
an imperfect poem.

©2016 by Steven Barto

Face

I thought I could hide my face; that
outward declaration of what I am thinking,
or who I truly am inside. I stand at the bathroom mirror,
not thrilled to catch my eye.
See those two vertical lines between my eyes?
This is an indicator of just how hard I am on myself.
I have a difficult time believing I’ve done any good
at any time since the moment I first drew breath.
Then I notice a faint third line right down the middle of my nose.
This is the supposed marker of a perfectionist.
As I stare at my face, I notice two deep lines below my nose and
on either side of my mouth; a telling giveaway of prolonged sadness,
a companion of mine for longer than I can remember;
one of interminable duration.
My doctor said horrible, puffy eyes could be evidence of weak kidneys.
Most inspiring to me, however, are the nasolabial folds that extend
from the sides of my nose down to the corners of my mouth;
these are an indication that I am on the right path,
living an authentic life. They prove I’m heading in the right direction,
fulfilling my purpose in the world, moving ever closer to being the
man God chose me to be the moment I was born.

©2016 Steven Barto

Logan’s Outlook

He towers tall over his tiny kitten, sitting in his power chair,
Simply smiling, sentient, all but savvy,
Knowing how happy and blessed is he;
Bound to his chair, yet free; intelligent enough to win a spelling bee.

Packed to the top of his brain with stats,
Possessing the soul of a global travel brat;
He sails around the world without leaving his home,
Able to rant and roam.

Reading the riot act to his opponent in
Call of Duty: Black Ops, not focusing on what he can’t do;
Applying aptitude and attitude to a challenging life of
Adversity and affliction, admonishing God just won’t do.

Admiring the capable child or athlete with an appreciation
For the frolic and revelry they show and tell,
Thrilled with the entertainment they present,
And the wonderful competition they wage.

Logan’s outlook obviously embodies an ostensible
Conclusion that, regardless of what he bears,
He will always be thrilled with being alive,
Content to learn and thrive.

©2016 Steven Barto

The above poem is an homage to my nephew, Logan, who was stricken with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) in the first few months of his life. SMA is a type of muscular dystrophy. He interacts with the world from atop his power chair. Very smart and observant. Loves sports, especially football. Favorite team: The Steelers. I truly love and admire Logan and wanted to write something that would at least hint at the great young man he is despite his situation.

Rowers on the Schuykill

Let us be early medieval or late Renaissance,
spike-featured Norman Christ
or bone-faced Dureresque peasant,
skeleton staining the flesh.

Let us descend the granite steps
and gather at at the river’s edge
for today is an Eakin’s day on the Schuykill:
boat races, festive crowds, spontaneous celebration.
See the strong young men lift their sculls
from the racks and carry them overhead
like slender varnished beetles
to the murky and opaque waterway.
See the girls sleek and oiled cheer them on,
the losers as well as the winners.
See the geese that summer and winter here
spring up over the island. See them sport
with one another in raucous feathery
gaggles and announce to the daily horde
the absence of human frailty.

For all seems well under the cutting sun:
Joan of Arc is heroically bronzed
though even she cannot halt traffic along the drive
and Mad Anthony Wayne rears on his horse
with the famed golden testicles.
How miraculous we seem to ourselves on this fair mountain
as cyclists weave round us, in and out
of joggers and skater and strawberry mansions.

There is more: deep in the earth
an orchestra plays something lush,
romantic, called back and tempered
by the limping Hungarian.
And there on the bank I see
an old black man-
fishing for catfish, stepped from a genre painting.

But remember, we have come to watch the boat races-
the crews in their sculls on the Schuykill,
2-man, 4-man, 8-man and coxswain,
barking his rubbery lips stretched
over a frightening oracular beak:
Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!
And the coach puttering around
effortlessly in his motor boat,
looping lazy figure-eights about them
as they rain sweat, snap ligaments, and groan.
But this is only practice,
the race is soon to run.
Only then will these young oarsmen show
an old and tired Charon the ropes-
how to run his ferry faster
on this one of many rivers,
stroke by stroke by stroke.

By Leonard Kress (1987)
From the anthology Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania

 

Amanda Davis, a Tribute

I was first exposed to Amanda Davis when I bought her collection of short stories, Circling the Drain (1999). It is a collection of fifteen short stories told from the perspective of young women who, despite their vastly different circumstances, seem to negotiate an eerily similar and unavoidably dangerous emotional terrain. Each of these women are trying to understand the nature of loss – of leaving or being left – and discovering that in the throes of feverish conflict, things are rarely what they seem. Ironically, Amanda’s first novel, Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, was published just a short time before her death.

She was traveling in a private plane that was taking her on a publicity tour for her novel when it crashed into a mountain 18 miles from Asheville, NC. Her father, Dr. James Davis was piloting the plane, and her mother, Francie Davis, was traveling with them. Dr. Davis was chairman of the neurology department at Stony Brook University Medical School in Stony Brook, N.Y. Mrs. Davis was an assistant professor and the chief librarian at Dowling College in Oakdale, N.Y. No one survived the crash.

I was thinking about Amanda’s death one afternoon in late 2003 when I was compelled to write a poem as a tribute.

I’m sorry you died;
Were you scared?
Could you tell what was happening?
What did you feel first,
The coppery taste of fear on your tongue
Or the shudder of the wings?
I wonder if you were writing;
I can only imagine what you were thinking.
I look at your photograph
Tucked inside the back cover of your book;
I smile, softly, sadly,
And I place my fingers on your face;
I watch, helpless, as you circle down,
Swirl around,
Ending prematurely, inexplicably;
Nothing is the same anymore.

When, if Ever?

I wrote this poem in 1995 while in active addiction. I was at that jumping off point where I was struggling, drowning, and yet I couldn’t make any sensible decision that would help turn the tide. When I started bringing booze into the office and starting my mornings drinking a cold beer in the shower, I knew something was terribly wrong. I hated myself. I could not make eye contact with myself in the mirror when shaving. I truly believed I would never be able to find the humanity that was buried deep within my soul.

When, if Ever?

Silent and alone,
I sit and stare into the sun
And wonder when, if ever,
I will walk the face of this planet
In complete harmony with myself.

Steven Barto, 1995

 

Morning Breaks

Morning breaks, tugging at me,
Seeking me out, inviting me
Into the light.
Groggy but aware,
I sit up and run my hand through my hair.
The sun is dazzling,
Slicing through the curtains and
Warming a patch of carpet
Next to the bed.
I look at the clock on the nightstand and grin.
I see I’ve beat the alarm again;
Five minutes to spare. Good deal!
No squawking buzzer, instead a
Slow gentle return to awareness,
The last dreamy thoughts receding into
Their hiding place,
Content to wait patiently for me
Until I come back for them again,
Later tonight.
Every day should begin this way.

 

©2016 Steven Barto

Death, a Poem

Death.
Does it have wings,
Or just claws?
Giant talons of razor-sharp finality
Carrying us away.
Is it the end, or just a sort of limbo?
Is it fair?
A true measure of retribution and penance,
Equal in proportion to the evil we have spread.
Does it give over to eternity,
Or does it simply close the door on what was?
Can it be cheated,
Or does it always have the last laugh?
When it strikes at an early age, is it off course,
Or is death always on time?
Can it ever be bargained with?
And, if so, what would be the price?

© 2016 Steven Barto