Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

The Poetry of Brian Barker : Finalist, 2005



Crow Gospel Coming Down The Mountain


                        (Houston, Texas, 2001)

Where have all the night tunes fled?

The thrum of locusts, those tin blossoms I loved
To hear ratchet and uncoil
                                              and swivel down from the cypress trees,
Are long gone, gone with the freight trains
Slogging through the humidity,
                                                        their shadowchurn over
The tarred trestles, their castanets of wood and air and steel.

And the distant drone of the diesel rigs
Unspooling like bolts of muslin over the rooftops;
And the faint winglisp of Japanese beetles
Coasting the open window,
                                                       rappelling up the wall,
Dizzy for that place where the light sprouts- -

All of it gone, the night's music silenced
And sluiced through the oily gutters,
Into the yawning storm drains clotted
With trash and mud and drowned birds.

Gone and irretrievable, like a few stray eyelashes
Shed by a nightswimmer
                                           diving through the dark into darker water.


City of forgotten history, where are your dead?
What locks has the rain picked? What dark is this
That silences your cylinders, clicks shut
Your six black moons?

So much undone and rising,

The water thighdeep and spreading like iodine,
Scything the manicured lawns, jostling the shotgun shacks,
Rattling the irongates and razorwire.
Rising over the capsized dumpsters,
Over the little-league fields and playgrounds,
Over the jukeboxes and convenience stores and hospitals,

While the poor ride their flimsy housing
                                                                         down like sheetrock dinghies.

And the homebound traffic submerged,
Frozen in orbit on the interstate
Where the radios warble and bleed beyond earshot.

And the light we hold onto growing cold.

And the light slipping piecemeal below the surface,
This fluid scaffolding, these ghostly constellations

Blurring out of reach beneath the water.


It's the rain that calls me out and the night
That anchors me here like a stone.

The night, impenetrable, a layer of charcoal
Sheeting the bottom of a water purification tank.

The night and the silence beneath water.
The silence that we're all being swept towards.

Who will remember us? What will I remember?

Once, when I was sixteen and death didn't exist,
When it didn't follow me as it does now,
This thin, persistent whine behind my left ear,
I shucked my clothes beside the tracks,
Stumbled across a soot-glazed trestle,
And listened to the pigeons rustle on the ledge
As I spread my arms to summon the dumb-luck
And know-not-what that got me there.

I stood on the edge of some undefined space
Where trees, washed in adrenaline,
Ceased to be trees, and the single blue feather
That floated down in front of me,
Just out of reach, held the only light
I thought I'd ever need. When I jumped
The water was no longer
Water, but a doorway, and words a mere
Afterthought filling the room my body carved
In its headlong tumble.

If I could, I'd plunge again into that weightlessness.
I'd shake this undertow from around my ankles
And sink to where the salamander skulls
Lisp their sandy refrains, where the leaches lurk
Among crack pipes and tires and stray shoes.
There where the fire ants refuse
To die, their bodies rising like bubbles
Through the murky corridors.

I'd follow the water moccasins and catfish,
Gather the coins tarnishing
In the gator mouths and swim to the concrete's edge
Where sewage and gasoline scallop the pylons,
Where the names of lovers
Are scrawled in the shadows and the homeless cling
To cardboard signs. If I could,

I'd hollow their words out and drag the lost
Faces up from the depths.
But the flood's erased the shore, smeared
The messages like octopus ink.
And somewhere behind the clouds
The stars remain, igniting the dark's amnesia.


From the driveway's edge, I watch the water
River the street,
                            sliding and eddying past,
Rising at the intersection where it boils
Into a gluttonous gray-foam,
Biting at the stopsigns and telephone poles,
Spitting its flotsam out, its scum and bones.

Two Mexican boys drift by on the current
In a dead-man's float, shirtless, their bodies
Dark as skates. Just as they pass,
They roll over onto their backs
Laughing before they hit the spot where the rapids
Begin to wheel and surf out of sight.

And all night I'll worry up the stunned
Rattlesnakes, the uncorked manholes,
The water's chemical sheen and the silence
Swimming like an endless wind beneath.

And all night I'll worry their names
Out of the rain.

I could launch a thousand newsprint boats
Into the eye of the storm to bless them,
Fill the hulls with brand new pennies
To grant them luck. I could climb the trees
With my plastic lantern and light their way,
There where the leaves whisper
Into the night's tincan.


I lie in bed a long time before drifting
Into sleep, listening to a helicopter
Circling the city, to the silence that lifts
Like a broken buoy inside its whop.
With my eyes closed I can almost imagine
The faint sound of its spotlight sliding
Over the water, over the mirrored facades
Of the skyscrapers. A sound as precise
As a broom sweeping the linoleum floor
Of the barbershop at closing time
When the barber is alone.
He finishes, removes his smock
And stands smoking, watching the news
On an old television. The gray dusk
Has softened the lines on his face,
Just as it's softened the chrome chairs
Behind him and the headlights of the cars
On the interstate going nowhere now
And the curses of their drivers. Soon
They're pushing the doors open with their feet,
The water and the night pouring through,
Indistinguishable, filling the floorboards
In one funneling gasp, the way grain
Swirls and spills from a silo
Into the sunlight and dust of summer.
Although they never describe it as such
To the bystanders and reporters.
It happened so fast, they say, shivering.
It happened so fast. . .I hardly remember anything.

And the barber, believing their words
Are already rain and broken glass,
Clicks off the set and turns to the window,
Watching the drops weave and thread
The letters of his name, his face blank
As he stares past everything
Trying to remember what it is he's lost.
What could I say that he won't already understand
When he finds himself standing alone
In the dark, listening to the wind come again
And again, the rain running off
The awning, the sound of water rising?


A dream of flood in the midst of flood.

The water goes where it wants and I follow it
Through the drowned streets and alleys,
Through greased cavernous canals of parking garages,
Through unhinged doors and shattered windows,
Up elevator shafts and down hallways.

Telephone lines fishtail and fizz.

Dead letters ride up
out of the blue breath of mailboxes.

In a hospital basement, cages bob like lobster traps,
The shaved pink bellies of rats bloating
Against the wire mesh, the bright tips
Of unsheathed syringes
                                         snicking a code against steel and glass.

Somewhere a lone cello floats calmly
Across a playground of my childhood,
As if the world had never known its music,
As if it had never been anything else
But an empty boat. It docks against
The top of a swingset where crows roost,
Lifting their faces into the wind.

What I remember is water and then
No water, the earth spongy
                                                 as I kneel beneath
The swing, beside the hole scooped out
Long ago by my gliding feet.
There in a shallow pool tadpoles
Squirm in the mudsuck, hundreds of black
Commas I cup in my hands and carry
To the bank of the swollen creek.

I wait a long time for the cries of their kind
To rise from the rocks and crushed grass.


Dawn, and the first sunlight in days,
Mustard-pale and seeping
Through the last of the broken storm bands
Scudding west like a fleet of ashy rafts.
I open the window and the morning air's
Steeped with the smell of mold,
Sewage, rotting fish, and something
Unidentifiable: thousands of mosquito eggs
Taking root in the mud, perhaps,
Or the musky scent of night crawlers writhing
In blind ecstasy on the sidewalk and in the grass.

I could say, now is the time to start over.
I could say, now is the time to pick up the pieces and move forward,

But some good soul says it and means it
When the smoky rasp of a chainsaw
Flares up and ricochets
Through the narrow spaces between homes,
And then the deep, intermittent
Chortle of a generator and pump, and the whine
Of an outboard in the distance
Ferrying people and pets and supplies.

I want to say, this is the music of beginning again,
When a face on the news stops me.

It's a Mexican man I've seen somewhere before,
Perhaps slinking in the long sheetmetal
Shadow of the day labor office off Shepherd,
Standing now on the steps of his house,
The street swollen with water and debris.
He's holding a fishing net
And scooping up a muddy wedding dress
Billowing in the backwash of the bayou.

He stands holding it for a long time,
Watching the water empty out
Of its lace skirt and bodice. He doesn't look up,
Not even when the reporter thrusts
The microphone beneath his chin.
He stands staring at the dress,
And before I can speak I'm gone with him
To the place where he last remembers it,

Unzippered and crumpled at the bottom of a skiff
Shored where the cattails bow along the bank,
A half-mile down river from the wedding feast.

The stars never so close and silent as this,
As he and his new wife swim, the water
So black and warm against their bodies the world
Seems to be springing forth
For the first time out of the dark,
Out of their footprints pressed in silt,
Out of the willlowroots and stones and snakegrass.

And when I study his face
And close my eyes now, I can see the rowing
Back, the oars rising and dripping
Like wet wings. I can feel the hot blisters swell
On my hands and welcome them.
I can hear the music that floods the night
And blesses the boat, and there is
No reason to speak, no reason to say anything.


--originally published in Blackbird, November 2004 (3.2)



When I dare at last to imagine hunger,

I see a farmer wandering his parched fields

not knowing what to do, finally, but sleep

the day out in the barn's long shadow,

dreaming of the family dog he drove

deep into a neighboring county

and abandoned by the side of the road.

Weeks later a boy finds it in a ditch- -

timid and gimp, a halo of gnats

festering between its swollen testicles

and wormy flanks-and he coaxes it

into some pines, tethers it with a tentstake

and a chain as the late summer light

spirals and drapes over the branches,

a mirage the dog slavers and snaps at.

Consider the boy's amusement

as he imagines the animal jerking the light

down and the ruckus of bells that clang

and catapult from the treetop belfries,

the canopy rent like a piņata, spilling licorice

and circus peanuts, coins and fluttering dollar bills.

The real possibilities are beyond him.

The dog as a parable of pain or loss.

Hunger as some small iridescent thing at work

inside the animal, hovering around its heart

the way a lone dragonfly skirts the dry pond crater,

dismantling the day-light unstitched

from dust, dust unbuckled from air.

By now, the dog's given up, and the boy

watches its tongue loll in the pine needles,

the heave and fall of its stomach, its eyes

following birdflight in and out of the shade.

Restless for something he cannot name,

he imagines the music he might make

if he thumped the dog's belly like a drum.

Imagines its eyes are the color of iron.

Imagines the unimaginable and does it,

the tire tool and the belly unwilling instruments,

and the dog's caterwaul is not like music

at all and when night comes the cricketsong

dulcifies nothing, the dog's body

is just a body, is not paltry, is not glorified.

What hunger is this that haunts the boy,

that haunts the man sleeping in the shade?

Watch as the dragonfly dips into his open mouth

and keeps going, a blur between bone and sinew,

a wet thread collapsing soft caverns of flesh,

gone to where his body is a field

honed by sleeves of sunlight,

to where the boy ceases to be and the man wakes.

He knows what flits through him now

keeps the time with its thrumming,

carrying him away from himself

into himself, to where the dog roves in the shadows--

ravenous, luminous--its tail bobbing

in the heat, a winnowing sliver of light.


--originally published in Poetry, November 2004


Crow Gospel Coming Down From The Mountain

In the winter of 1980, when the landfill
Was bulldozed over, the crows strutted into town
To roost in the trees along Beaver Creek
And spar over the trash bins on State Street.

The mountain shone a pale gray-purple,--
The color of a crushed crocus,
                                                     or the dying skin of a god

Who turned his back on our town, the double-wides
Sinking in a field of mud, the dim housing projects
With Christmas lights twittering in windows, their chimneys
Scrawling the sour smoke of whatever might burn.

Defeat smelled like a lumbering feathered mustiness,
Something vinegar-breathed;

It sounded like the dozens of rusty caws that swung
Down through branches, through telephone wires
And television antennas

The day Little Jimmy Jenkins and his ilk, white-robed,
A few of the men playing instruments,
Zig-zagged towards City Hall.

I saw it from the second floor of my elementary school
After someone shouted Parade! and the windows filled
With waving, giggling third graders.
                                                              Mrs. Rutherford tried to shoo us
Back to our desks, then finally gave up, wrote freedom on the board
And smoothed out the front of her dress, waiting

For the clangs and squeaks, for the thin
Backs of the men and their sharp, shiny hats
To whittle away in the winter wind.


That winter, when the wind tumbled down the dark,
I slept
            and took it all inside me--

The mountain looming in my bedroom window,
Covered in ice, its light waning
From within, daub of leafrot and foxfire going under,
Black branches clicking like turnstiles--

And the crows in the pines behind the Piggly Wiggly
Speaking in tongues, spread-winged and gaff-eyed
When they kited down through snow to the dumpsters--

And Jimmy Jenkins, and Mrs. Rutherford wiping chalk
From her hands, and my parents whispering
About the black and white couple who moved in down the street.

Winter wind on my neck, flashback and backlash
Of the past, it all whorls inside me--
                                                             the Christmas decorations
Downtown, bells and the jostle of bright lights,

Shopping at JCPenneys with my mother
When the battered Job Corps bus sputtered up
And a line of black men filed off,

Dirty and exhausted from working
Construction the whole day, dynamiting
And bulldozing a hole that would become, by summer,
The Lee Tunnel off Highway 81.

What comes back are their blue coveralls,
And how they hung their heads when their foreman,
The one they called Mr. J. D., seethed at them--

Perk up you bunch of goddamn sissy fusses and wipe off
Your grubby hands before you touch anything.

And maybe this is a story told best by hands:
The sales clerk twisting her pencil; my mother
Clutching her purse, squeezing my arm
Tighter and tighter; the security guard tapping
The handle of his blackjack.

Each man's hands with their fingerprints and palmprints,
Their sheen of salt and oil, reaching out to cup
The hem of a silk negligee, to stroke the collar of a wool coat.

And one hand ghosting against the warm glass,
The white light of the jewelry counter,
Reminded me of a bird,
                                         its delicate hinges and slender bones.


Defeat brindles on the crows' calls, snags
In the thick scumble of pines.

It shakes itself from the green needles, a poison
Tunneling through snow,
                                             sifting through a mizzle of sleet.

It's the knifelight in the water moccasin's eye.
It's an absence, a presence, siltslide and cutbank
Where the rhododendron roots fray mid-air.

Gauze and black sticks, halo of coal dust,
It drowns the poor in the backwater,
                                                                in the whiskeylight of winter.

Defeat unscrolls like a scrawl of smoke,
It slurs and spiders in the dark: fractured prayers
Blistering like headlights on icy asphalt.


I remember my grandmother--a neat woman,
A kind woman, a staunch Christian--

Looking out the picture window in her apartment
On the hill, a little tatter of Kleenex
In her fist, her lips pursed as she looked down

On the rooftops of the projects, the mildewed brick
And scraps of tarpaper lifting in the wind.

She turned to me and said, The coloreds ruin everything they touch.
She said, You watch who you make friends with, you hear?

And I did hear, and heard again, a little later,
When she asked me over my cheese and juice,
Do you think if you died tonight you'd go to Heaven?

Later, when I lay in bed fearing an end
I couldn't even imagine, I gave God a body
And a name, and tried to pray:

I'm an honest boy, Hoss.
My heart is clay, Hoss.
O please Hoss, hollow me out before they do.


Who is it that saunters there on State Street, holding his hat
With one chalky hand, flashing his polished flask in the other?

Brother Defeat in his swank suit,
                                                         hankie sprouting like a little flame.

Brother Defeat in his starched shirt and his tie
Snug in its Windsor knot,
His skin cloyed with the scent of rotting gardenias,

Heading down to the corner of Has Been & Never Will Be,
Where Sisyphus --
                                hunched on his milk crate, polyester shoulders
Worn down to a sheen, pants too tight and riding up
Like a bad dream--
                                plays his broken accordion,
Busking for gum wrappers and pocket lint.

Of all his busted instruments, he loves the accordion
The most, loves its duct-tape suture and the grooves
Fingered out on the whalebone buttons,
Loves the mice shit rattling around inside it.

Brother Defeat leans against the lamp post, tapping his foot
And stroking his white beard, tossing cashews to the crows

As Sisyphus, eyes shut tight, feels the mountain
Crumbling on his back, feels the night
Sweat through his three-piece suit,

And leans into his wheezing skeleton of song.


Because I wanted to believe in something,
I took the mountain inside me.

Because I believed it couldn't be moved,
I thought it wouldn't betray me.

It's the oldest story I know

But now a hole unfurls through it, through you,
Hoss, to the golf course and the country club,

And now you're nothing but the lost geography
Of the soul, not the place but the ideal of the place,

Some old longing, unattainable.


Once, God was the land without end,
And those at one with the land

Were at one with God, and work was not work
But a type of prayer, the sun warm on your neck,
The breeze blowing right through you

As your soul stepped out and ran ahead a little
Through the high grasses, through the tangled swell
Of woodbine and buckthorn, through the pines
Beyond the rimrock, and the mountain,

Which was the slow revelation of time itself.

Each thing the soul passed through left its outline,
Left its impression, like a wet feather plastered on glass.

It's one truth I know older than crows,
But it's been mapped, cut up, divvied out

So many times, it's worth nothing more now
Than the broken Christmas ornament
Strewn across the sidewalk as it begins to snow,

And Sisyphus shuffles back onto the bus
For the long ride back to the Get By.

It's too late for him now, but for a moment
Let me become part of each thing he knows--

Part of the snow planing down, then blown
Into waves of static. Part of the gold glass in the gutter,
The faint light locked behind each piece.

Part of the stray dog trotting around the corner
And its teats trotting in the air beneath it.

Part of the sighs the mountain swallows
And will not fling back.

Part of the sky that unfurls when he cradles
His head in his hands. Part of the crows that strut there.

Part of the watch ticking in his pocket and growing louder,

Time no longer contained but unbridled, one end of his-
Story folding over onto the other,

Endlessly, the way each thin flame of a fire
Lays down on the next, until what's left

Is the color of defeat, and weighs nothing.


I don't know what set the crows going, shovel-thump
Or shotgun, or perhaps the kiss of flint in the backs of their minds,
The way the snow kissed the asphalt, and the asphalt snuffed it out.

I don't know what it was, but one evening they disappeared.
Not for good at first, but they ended up
Where they were for a reason:

                                                      there at Carter's Crossing,
On the hill behind the construction company, the dead burr oak
Alive now with their shifting and preening, their smoky skirls.

Fire on the mountain, fire in the heart
And all those eyes flecked with gold

As Little Jimmy, and the one they called Mr. J.D.,
And Red the security guard from the store,
Stumbled from a pick-up, tossing the tarp off the back
Where Sisyphus was bound and gagged
For a watch lifted from beneath the glass.

They only meant to teach him a lesson, they said,

Until the shotgun was fumbled, snub-nose
Down, into the blue-black whump and nightsuck--

And this is where the story swirls and drifts, where I lose my place
For the watch has quit ticking and the men have stepped into the trees
As if stepping backstage, another act done, the theater dark and quiet
And filling with snow.

Sisyphus is curled where the spotlight once was, his mask
Peeled back to the face of a man, the wound beneath his eye
A wilted flower he's already become,

Just as he's become the clods of dirt that dribbled
Down his back, and the sound of cars siphoning from one side
To the next, the sweep and bounce of their headlights--

A man becoming something flawless
And iridescent, like the neck of a crow in a family of crows,
Or their measured slap of wings,
                                                        first one, then another,
Then all of them lifting through the molten smalt of memory,
Undulating, as if each bird was of one mind, was a single feather
On some larger bird,
                                        emptied of flight one more time.


One by one, the men vanished into the landscape,

And the children returned to their desks,
Only to cradle their heads in their arms and forget
And drift, for good, out of the story into the chatter
And laughter echoing through the corridor.

How can I get it right? How can I push the pieces
Back into place now that the classroom has emptied

And dead leaves flutter in the coat closet,
Now that all the textbooks have filled with flames?

Tonight, my remembering is nothing more
Than a record of my forgetting, and the boy is where
I left him, alone, a blurry face at the window,

Waving now to the white men, comical in their pointy hats,
Now to the black men on the bus, their heads
Bowed, their shoulders slumped to the arc of the sledge.

I am him and not him, trembling in the air
Around his body as the snow
Exhausts its options against the glass.

I am him and not him, the crows long gone,
The day's lesson done and streaked across the blackboard,
A word that weighed nothing more than the lace handkerchief

Mrs. Rutherford coughed into,
Until the cough, or the memory of the cough, is all
I remember, all the truth has become,

A warm mist where a body once stood.


--forthcoming in Painted Bride Quarterly, Fall 2005