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Tony Barnstone

Posted by admin on December 26, 2011

Tony Barnstone’s books of poetry include Tongue of War, winner of the John Ciardi Prize in Poetry; The Golem of Los Angeles, which won the Benjamin Saltman Award in Poetry; Sad Jazz: Sonnets; and Impure. He is also the translator of five books of Chinese poetry and prose and the editor of three world literature textbooks. He is the Albert Upton Professor of English Language and Literature at Whittier College.



The Witch House


Your breasts are blonde. Your legs are filaments

transmitting code that tells the cortex flare,

illuminate the brain. The elements

of sheen and moan and laugh are in your hair;

they mix like hormone bisque, pituitary

as lust. Your smell is dragon’s blood. You slew

the dragon with your smile, a sword I carry

sheathed in my chest. Tonight your Irish blue

is eyes and watery nights by candlelight

with music moving through our bodies, spasm

and tongue, and small bright thrusts, and kiss, and bite.

I love the way you gasp in blue orgasm

and grip me while my muscles clench, unwind.

Your breasts are blonde. Your mind undoes my mind.



There was a house in Pasadena where

a woman lived by candlelight and dreamed

that from the antique books the incensed air

might shimmer like tin-foil until it seemed

the universe was tapping out a code

inside the pulse. Listen. You need new ears

to hear. When I was lost I found the road

to the witch house, then ran with demon fears

beating my cheeks like ancient bats. Too late:

I’d seen the way a girl smiles through her lips

like light through wax, like pulse through wrist, like fate,

like moonlight to a man lost in eclipse.

The house is empty now. Yet I see us

in the witch house, still kissing, numinous.



The day the witch house burned your daughter’s lover

woke up to flaming curtains when the candle lit

on the sill sputtered, splashed flame on the cover

and then the room. The whole house, lost. You handle it

the way you handle everything, with grace:

your unmade screenplays, your portfolio

of black and white erotics, the bookcase

of dreams, go up inside a vertigo

of smoke. Later, you sift the soggy char,

looking for Fahrenheit 451,  

signed to you by Ray Bradbury. So far,

just ash. Your life is ash. You’re 51. 

Your daughter, worried, hovers near. “It’s hell,”

she says. “Yes, it is, dear,” you smile. “Oh, well.”



Odysseus cuts throats of sheep, blood-tar

for ghosts of warriors, brides and kings who twitter,

fluttering over the warm dark sweet-bitter

sacrifice, sipping like mosquitoes. Far

away, Penelope undoes the weave

again. While he plays champion, she plays

the patient wife. Later, my life: she says,

“Goddamn you, Tony, do you have to leave?”

A transatlantic flight and then I’m sitting

in my black underpants in a hot room

stretching these lines out like threads on a loom

I unthread when they will not fit. It’s fitting,

I traveled here to find out what I’d find:

the ghost of you still sipping at my mind.



The ghost of you still sipping at my mind

still draws some blood, and when I feel romantic

I still can dream your Irish breasts, or find

myself recalling falling into antic

lust and frightened love with you. But your voice

is hard to summon, incorporeal,

from the Ouija of the cell phone. Choice

you made, to die out of my life, unreal,

and thus ideal. The choice I made: to be

uncertain, and thus choose the certain worst.

I turn a tarot card: the seeker caught

between two thoroughfares (the Chariot).

My card. Yours next: the Empress (mystery).

You’re right side up and smiling. I’m reversed.



This poem is for your snowdrift skin, the way

we used to fit together dreaming. Night

in Athens: cockroaches skittering away

from murder, panicked by the awful light,

the alien skritching out this kitchen poem

in 3 a.m. insomnia. I miss

you, Love. Miss sleeping in your witchy home,

miss loving you asleep. And so I kiss

you with this poem. I kiss us back in time

to how our bodies kiss, your freckled thigh,

small of your back, the way our bodies rhyme.

I hold your Irish breasts, kiss you goodbye.

I kiss you as we change to strangeness, Love.

I kiss you for the life we will not live.


From Volume VI, Issue 1, 2011.