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Brian Barker


Gorbachev's Ubi Sunt from the Future That Soon Will Pass

                  I do not know anyone against whom so many slings and arrows have been
                  launched as against Gorbachev at present.

                                         -Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs

Where are the snows of yesteryear, Mr. President? 

Where are the black sedans, the secret police

dozing behind their sunglasses?

Where are the red telephones gleaming

in half-lit offices, the endless referendums

and memorandums, the long lines for bread and work?

Where are the concrete bunkers, the missiles

ticking beneath their hoods, standing upright and sullen like proud widows? 

Where are the white plains of Siberia, the drowsy

plenums in cheap suits, the drones dipping in and out of the clouds?

Where are the jabs, the all-night innuendos over trays of stale Danish?

Ah, yes, Mr. President. In death I speak perfect English. 

Ah yes. At heart I was always a poet.

What do I remember? 

It was late May, late morning, rain gushing 

from the waterspouts, the gutters gurgling like a brook in the Urals. 

I was reading my Memoirs

for the fourth time, when I felt with much suddenness

the mole of death paddle into the loam of my chest

and then a sensation as if I'd been stretched, 

buckled down on a steel table and shot up with osmium, 

such heaviness, and then a caving in into blackness and air...

Yes, Mr. President. Glasnost, too much glasnost,

for the One-In-Whom-I-Do-Not-Believe made a gesture

like he was shooting craps in an alley 

and I drifted out of his hand, slowly, into nothingness, into the cold

cataract of space, and I could see him, 

the One-In-Whom-I-Do-Not-Believe, I could look 

right into his face-flaccid, pale, almost featureless, 

as if he'd been scalded by a pot of boiling milk as a child-

and his eyes so sad and bottomless and besotted, 

watching Gorbachev watching him in confusion,

and then I could see the One-In-Whom-I-Do-Not-Believe

shake his bald, congealed head, ever so slightly, as if

he pitied Gorbachev, as if he wouldn't gift

a bushel of peasant dung for the hearts of Lenin or Mao,

and I knew then that the One-In-Whom-I-Do-Not-Believe

was a Capitalist, and I turned to you 

to say that you could have your Star Wars if the U.S.A. 

would show Soviet movies in your picture houses,

for this seemed fair, as we showed many U.S.A. movies

in Soviet picture houses, so I turned to you 

but you were not you, Mr. President, you were 

a wax replica of you in a cowboy suit

propped in the chair like a corpse, for you could not bend,

and so I then turned to Secretary of State Shultz,

but he was not he, but a thirteen-year-old boy 

wearing nothing but a T-shirt and sports socks 

masturbating into the lingerie section of a department store catalog,

and I felt ashamed, for the pink of his thighs 

reminded me of my auntie's bosom when she bent over to milk the cow, 

and outside the snows of Reykjavik 

were blotting out the sun, sheeting the windows, 

smelting the doors in grey rivulets of ice, and I looked down in terror

at the polished boardroom table and saw myself 

in a black mirror surrounded by blackness, surrounded by space, 

and I wore a spacesuit lined in lead

to comfort me from the radiation that was no danger,

and it was too hot and I could see the port-wine stain on my forehead 

pulsing like an alarm lamp, the archipelago of my fate, 

the hotzone of death boring into me. 

I had begun to sweat profusely, bilge rising in my boots, 

and the various aromas of the afterlife washing over me

like foamy waves. I smelled eggs and potatoes.

I smelled my babushka's ten pewter samovars

soaking in a tub of vinegar. I smelled a cloud of camphor

and tobacco when she lifted her petticoat

to make water, and her black hair

burning like an envelope of forgotten names.

I smelled the mysterious feast in the forest-corn beef, 

cabbage, pickled herring, a crystal fingerbowl of honey- 

laid out for the flies that worked ceaselessly,

carrying the dead to the living. 

I smelled the tears of the starving Poles 

weeping by the tracks, and their hands hiding 

the wet paper hives of their mouths.

I smelled the dead wasps and the dead leaves. 

I smelled the graves opening beneath a blue sky.

They smelled like nothing, like dirt

and crushed chalk and the gluey eyes of the unborn.

I smelled lemon vodka and a vat of soft apples.

I smelled the crozzled skin of the firefighters of Chernobyl.

They were ashamed. Their bodies were still smoking.

I smelled a rose dipped in the blood of the suicides,

and the chemical snows of Kiev 

where children sang, swimming in the river at dusk.

And I smelled the night coming down. 

It smelled like gunpowder, like ferocious tumors 

fattening in the gelid Petri dish of the brain,

as the water crept up, up, up

and I drowned inside my suit, bobbing in my lopsided orbit

while the jaundiced stars burnt out

all around me in one long, broken necklace of exhaust,

and spy satellites tottered overhead 

like defunct science projects, their frayed tinfoil,

their twisted coathangers carrying your voice, Mr. President,

to Gorbachev, your voice so far away, old friend,

how it sounded like it rose from the bottom

of a blighted sea into my helmet, crackling, spiraling 

around the thinnest filament of wire, your voice 

offering prayers, pledging your help, and I cried out to you then

for the dead I had denied in life were descending 

in a bright crowd, moving through space toward Gorbachev

like a school of luminous jellyfish-

I passed those whose heads 

had been airbrushed into oblivion,

how they waved their arms wildly in the emptiness.

I passed the lost cosmonauts of Kapustin Yar,

sibilant and thin, whispering, Remember us to the Motherland.

I passed those blindfolded, cigarettes dangling 

from their lips, and those who fell in the fields

and rose with poppies in their hair.

I passed the grandmothers of Pripjat, pallid,

doddering, clutching brittle clumps of iron-gray hair 

in their fists, and mothers without breasts 

who undressed in the dark.

I passed the dropsical lying on gurneys, bellowing

like crippled walruses, peering over the swollen ridges of their flesh.

I passed those who had forgotten how to speak

and those who walked on the knurled stumps of their arms

and those hugging themselves, their skin 

sloughing off in saucers of rust.

I passed the strange amalgams, those with dosimeters

for eyes, and those without skulls 

whose brains bulged like bulbous potatoes

and asthmatics with long tails, gasping behind their respirators,

and others I could not see, those curdled 

into single split seeds of pain, hissing curses only Gorbachev heard...

Ah, Mr. President, too much glasnost, too much undone. 

Where are my tears?

Where is the One-In-Whom-I-Do-Not-Believe?

In my dream of the end he comes to me at last, out of his sickness, 

out of his pot of boiling milk, he comes to me 

and I say yes, you are you. I say, yes,

they are mine, I gather them in, and he touches me

and breaks me open like an endless matryoshka full of rain

and I fall over the scorched forests of Belarus

where the trees rise like smoke and beings older than man 

prick their ears against the silence,

listening for the cries of the idiots and orphans

who move among them now through the unmapped dark.


Lullaby for the Last Night on Earth

When at last we whisper, so long, so lonesome,

and watch our house on the horizon
go down like a gasping zeppelin of bricks,

we'll turn, holding hands,
and walk the train tracks to the sea...

So sing me that song where a mountain falls 
in love with an octopus, and one thousand fireflies 
ricochet around their heads,

and I'll dream we're dancing in the kitchen one last time, 
swaying, the window a waystation 
of flaming leaves, the dogs shimmying 
about our legs,
                      dragging their golden capes of rain...

O my critter, my thistle, gal-o-my-dreams,

lift your voice like an oar into the darkness,
for all the sad birds are falling down-

Nothing in this night is ours.


The Last Songbird

We heard you once, here on earth, 
                     singing from the icy turrets at dawn 
            as the tarry wind whipped skyward and you swooped

from steeple to balcony to wire, over the hospital 
                     where a pink glow pulsed in one window 
            like the gummy heart of a mole

that burrows from the center of darkness,
                     from the center of stone and clay 
            where your song went to perish, how in the end


it already sounded so distant, like the whispers 
                     of a dying poet trapped inside a glass jar, 
            or the sharp gasp of a ghost


bleeding through the radio in an apartment 
                     where the ceiling kept coughing up 
            a fine, stinging snow of asbestos


and we opened the door and heard an explosion 
                     and we opened the door and the day 
           was rubbing its forehead raw in the scalded parking lot


while someone's mother wept, looking for her lost keys, 
                    O bird, what secrets we could confess 
           if only you would hold still, but you keep punishing us


by darting into the gaping mouth of oblivion, 
                    you keep punishing us, shy thing, 
           by turning into a brittle leaf, or by leaping from the edge


of our sight into the cauldron of smoke roiling 
                   beneath the bridge, punishing us in our dreams
           where you drift and pirouette in the makeshift air,


where you fly in reverse and sing so sweetly 
                   that the batik of blood creeping
           over the sidewalk effervesces and recedes, flowing


backwards, and we wake remembering 
                   our dead and the bright cafés 
           and how we used to whistle a little crooked tune


over the sounds of the morning traffic, calling you 
                   down to lift us off the ground a bit 
           and bludgeon us with your song.


Visions for the Last Night On Earth

Then I saw the floodwaters recede, leaving a milky scum 
scalloped on silos and billboards, and the eaves of farmhouses 
were festooned with a mossy brown riverweed 
that hung in the August heat like bankers' limp fingers,
and the drowned corn, sick from sewage and tidesuck,
reappeared like a washed-out green ocean of wilting speartips 
that bloated fish rode into the moonlight,
and the lost dogs came down from the hills, still lost,
trotting, panting, a tremolo of swollen tongues, their mudcaked 
undercarriages swarmed by squadrons of gnats
as dilapidated barns began disappearing at last, swallowed like secrets 
by the muck, and the ghosts of handsome assassins 
sat up in piles of hay and combed their pompadours 
and muttered in Latin their last prayers 
before stepping through trapdoors flung open 
like flaps of skullskin to the skyblue sky of oblivion-

that same color of your panties, I thought, as you floated topless 
across our bedroom in a wake of sparks, a vision sashaying 
across the bottom of the sea, visions colliding, the sea rising, please forgive me
my terrors, love, for I saw your braided hair and imagined 
a frayed rope lowered from a helicopter, or, worse, 
the ropey penis of the horse a general sits in the shade 
as bluebottle flies, querulous and fierce, baffle the air
above silhouettes bent digging in a field of clay.
For I watched the sunset so many evenings, holding your hand,
and thought of the combustible blood of an empire, 
or lay awake in the long dark listening to your breathing 
and imagined sad Abe Lincoln pacing our hallway, his arms folded 
behind his back like a broken umbrella, the clock ticking, 
the ravenblack sedans idling curbside in the suburbs 
of America, watching closely, purring greedily,
as they gulped down the last starlight, dreaming of some other dawn.

                           -from The Black Ocean

BIO: Brian Barker is the author of The Animal Gospels (Tupelo Press, 2006) and The Black Ocean (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011), winner of the Crab Orchard Open Competition. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as American Poetry Review, Poetry, Diagram, Kenyon Review Online, Indiana Review, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, The Writer's Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Cincinnati Review, Blackbird, and Pleiades. His awards include an Academy of American Poets Prize and the 2009 Campbell Corner Poetry Prize. He is married to the poet Nicky Beer and teaches at the University of Colorado Denver, where he is a Poetry Editor of Copper Nickel.

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