Michael Barrett
I. Babylons


I.
In January you read religiously. A war
begins inside the television. You can,
owing to a mind that collects facts
as profit, turn it off when
you’ve had enough for one day. Even
if you haven’t you can wait to see
how it ends, reminded that
“it’s better as history than news.”
Your name is Marshall and the window
across from you window is at the foot
of your neighbor’s bed. She’s beautiful;
her hair is raven dark. She screams
when her husband hits her. You hear
falling asleep. Her calves make fists
when he’s on top of her. You want to be
part of that scene, plan to meet her folding
laundry, weeding the front lawn, taking
out the trash. Then carry her home, up
the stairs, let her down on your side
of the bed. Her mouth will make groans.
You want to balance power, form a triangle
where there’s now a line—because it’s better
as politics than desire. Your lover
claims you need to dominate but she’s behind
a different window and her shades are
drawn. If you wait long enough, or not
at all, everything comes together nicely.
Four birds perch in a tall cedar outside
your back door. You can see them
from a window in your bedroom.

II.

Four birds set on a tree, five beasts graze
below. The trunk grows out of Nebuchadrezzar’s
navel as he dreams. Jung reads this as
megalomania, the roar that caves
regulation, Daniel reads shadows
in that place, Jung diagnoses
medieval scenes, there, in ink. Session one.
Christ appears later, but not in this
interpretation: a city, encircled by a double
system of walls, eight gates access
the interior. Jung stands at three of them.
The British are still fighting the Turks
in nineteen twenty-three, four years
after World War I, seven after Jung’s first
diagnosis. A German excavated
the city’s streets, thirty to fifty feet wide,
paved with blocks quarried in Lebanon,
impressed with the king’s name. When wheeled down
down the road, his god passes one hundred lions,
five hundred seventy-five dragons
and bulls—in profile—arranged in
thirteen rows, one for each of the ways
Nebuchadrezzar sees himself as powerful
and holy. Like a god with four faces
he could stand on top of a ziggurat
and see nothing but kingdom under his
influence, regulated: his inscription
in each grain of sand, the gardenscape of walls,
gates and paths, beasts counted as the number
of ways to become what’s underneath the layers.

III.

The desert is an occasion,
space pictorial, an experience.
It measures the Orient between
us: lost in the swelter forever, or
recollected in flashback. Deformed.
The desert plays cinematographic,
the bedouin, character actors back-
grounded in heat. Out of it rises
Gertrude Bell, single and alone
in Baghdad. She administers
to Arabs freed from the Ottoman.
One day, she writes, Old man at the door.
She is reading, lifts her eyes from the page,
tells him to speak. Outside Damascus, he
says, in the spaciousness Allah subdued
for his servants, he saw a woman
“of stupendous stature and luminous
countenance.” High and bright. He sinks
to his knees, amazed, asks who she thinks
she is. “The sun.” He doubts it, looks up, asks
again. “The British government,” she replies.
He understands this, walks the miles necessary
to give Bell this report. “Most Excellent”
Bell smiles, closes her book, begins the letter.
She imagines a tasteful hat
and muslin dresses tailored in Paris.
It billows, spreads across the desert. She
looks north, translates visions into English
and sends them back to her father,
losing a fortune in London.

IV.

O Andrey Vislyevich Kovrin! Had
only the mirage been conjured on
the steppe rather than the horticulturist’s
lurid acres, you could have chosen
a pilgrim’s staff and walked ever
widening circles to intersect the path
of the black monk, redeeming your
marriage and your life. Even if you
kept traveling the barren, you’d appear,
a revolutionary figure, in steppe tales
told around the smoldering fires, scattered
like so many fallen stars. But
you weren’t wary of transcendence
given to the over-worked and nervous,
knowledge that strings this afternoon
to the next without a busy signal.
You were brilliant and could make a
killing in the market, such as it is
for treatises on the geography of truth.
Fat and comfortable in Saint Petersburg,
you would revise manuscripts to account
for body processes, dreams and last night’s
news. Tanya sleeps nearby. Magister,
the end could be prescient and brief:
Kovrin sits in his softest chair and hears,
from the floor below, three women sing a folk
song about a ghost walking circles on the steppe.
The black monk appears, takes his hand and
pulls him out of the chair, moving Kovrin
toward his perihelion, knowing what Lenin knew.

V.

As if to critique the political
economy, Marcia had twins,
a dialectic. They lived in the matter-
of-fact lines on a residential street
and the swift low movement of sky
between, learning quickly that on the end
of each decision stands a heretic.
They always found themselves opposed,
it made no difference whom their mother
favored—conflict breaks the law of scarcity.
Their father could be a number of men.
No syllogism will account for their
positions: it’s a pea-and-thimble trick
with thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,
the kernel of truth revealed only
after you’ve lost your investment.
Still, they’d lie together, finish dreams
for each other and wake unmoved, as if
returning to a movie after a special
report, or coming up for air while something
sinks bottomward. If their lives
depended on each other and a fire
raged everywhere, the first born might put
a hand on the door and square a shoulder
to it. The other wraps arms tightly around
and whispers, “Come to your senses.”
The moment is erotic. No matter how
they would have aged separately, they’ll die
together, the nature dependent.
Marcia will always remain, grieving.

VI.

My brother’s wife is between us
and we each present a cheek
to kiss. She holds two glasses of water
and a baby beneath the white linen
of her dress, kisses me first, then
my brother. She carries his name,
mine, and my father’s into the shadow
of the house, disappears on the steps.
We dig, pull out turf in order to clear
space for flowers. I do not know
their names, nor when they bloom. I hear
my brother’s wife striking cookware.
My brother presses a foot to the spade
and, breathing heavily, speaks about top soil,
thirty year mortgages and room
for a third. My hands are soft, they blister
frequently, I peel back a small piece
of skin, tear the flap off with my teeth
to show him how hard I work. He
nods and pitches sod onto a compost
heap. I walk away from my shovel
as night lies flat on the street;
each light succeeds the next,
coincident with the script of trees
light arcs through as I pass, a
half-circle of shaded almanac
moons, on my palms a ring of iodine,
between my fingers
like dark between leaves,
nothing and its progenitors.


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Issue One

Introduction

Babylons: Poems by Michael Barrett

Piotr Parlej on Zagajewski & Polish Poetry

Adam Zagajewski

Stephanie Strickland

Reginald Gibbons

Göran Printz-Pählson

John Peck

David Kellogg

Ken Smith

Jesper Svenbro

Kymberly Taylor

Ilya Kutik

C.S. Giscombe

Reginald Gibbons and Rosemarie Waldrop



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