Classical deities and down-and-out junkies, high school sweethearts and the inner life of JFK—these are the coordinates of J.T. Barbarese’s terrain. The poems in Sweet Spot set up shop where average lived experience meets American history. Masterfully evokes both the specific land- and cityscapes of his poems as well the psychological types of the varied characters that populate them, Sweet Spot confirms Barbarese’s preeminence as a chronicler of the heroic everyday, the telling detail, the subtle reminders of the human predicament hidden in habit and memory.
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.30(d)|
About the Author
J. T. Barbarese is an associate professor of English at RutgersUniversity and the author of four previous collections of poetry and a translation of Euripides. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Times Literary Supplement, and Poetry, and his literary journalism in The Georgia Review, Sewanee Review, and elsewhere.
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By J. T. BARBARESE
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 J. T. Barbarese
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWALKING CROSS TOWN
At the Shunk Street library I came across a definition
in the OED that so knocked me out with its beauty
I xeroxed the whole page, stuck it in my pocket and walked out
and kept right on walking: north on Nineteenth,
then cross town on Chestnut to Walnut; then south on Ninth
past my old girlfriend's Pine Street apartment,
and by now it was getting dark. The Sidgies
were building fires of studs, box lids, and barrel-slats
and tossing crates of spoiled produce into city trash trucks
where drivers dozed in their cabs. Way later, past midnight,
I'm wandering through the neighborhoods east of Broad
and get lost somewhere south of Tasker. The little streets,
blunt and unobliging, had me walking in circles
until suddenly I was standing in somebody's bedroom—
a blind corner store entrance, one of those cul-de-sacs
that nestle like vectors in vectors. A big mutt
snored on the bed, a blue Christmas light
smeared a pillowed human outline into its paws,
and the two breathed as one, two creatures asleep
as one pulse, uncompromised. How strange we are,
how radiant our poverty! All this goes on
out of sight, in creaturely darkness but only once,
and my once is another's never. What ever happened
to that page, those creatures, to me? The sky was a star blot
and the pale swab of the Milky Way
whitened the general dark so much I forgot
how alone we are most of the time, and how lost, and how late.
THREE VIEWS OF My FATHER IN ST. EDMOND'S CHURCH
He drops our tithe (three beat-up singles)
in the plate and says Be still.
A dome-to-floor sun-and-dust-spout boils
and flushes through the tiered candles
before the apsidal Virgin. She treads
(she's right-footed) the stiletto head
of Satan, who sleeps in a harmless coil
and suns himself on the Arctic Circle
in the alcove between the confessionals
and the marble baptismal font.
* * *
He pulls me closer. He's khaki'd,
close-shaved and Sunday-shod,
with an amateur middleweight's guns
and improbably light-skinned forearms
the sun in its midday ascent
fingers and smoothes. His scent,
Luckies over Aqua Velva. The chalice
of blood goes up, the host follows,
all genuflect, and the Kyrie
elides into the boom of planes
airlifting food to Berlin.
Their elision is eleison.
* * *
Our local goddess fixed me
with a look too hard and steady
to be my mother's. You
in your flashy Wanamaker shoes
are somebody's mama, but whose?
Stella Maris in high heels,
sculpted on somebody's plain-Jane
wife or sister and Mary Martin's
scary Peter Pan, deadpans
the crowd of the non-elect,
points with her manicured index
skyward and the church shakes.
Afterburners, he says, squinting
through convected dust and incense,
Wait—there'll be more
and he pulls me closer.
My first real kiss: in Larry's backseat, with Carla.
She has just stepped off the plane, and bounding up
leaps into my arms, wraps her legs around me,
her breath logy with Larks and airplane food,
and just as our lips touch
I think of my first base hit
six years earlier
off Craig Lord, a left-hander for the Mice.
I had just turned eleven, was youngest on the team,
went three for three, had four RBI, and my first at bat
came unraveling out of my Musial crouch and
roped the first pitch into center. It sailed over second
and bounced twice in the outfield grass,
the only grass within miles. By Carla's
the river ran noncommittally through Collingswood
and irrigated the grass and the long graded yard
its waters groomed and greened. Would Carla have kissed me
if she knew when I think of her now I don't see
her green shocking eyes or that dimple but the old galvanized
cyclone fence beyond left field and across Nineteenth
with the links reshaped by our climbing and sneaking into
a PTC trolley barn? That when someone says Carla
I no longer remember that kiss but the shock
of a ball hitting a barrel? That I don't
remember the taste of her mouth or her lips
but only my own? Dry-tongued,
I ran crazy around the bases
and rode standing into third, all the weight of life
lifted for that moment like longing, or like remorse.
Be your own father.
—ELLISON, INVISIBLE MAN
I was just past the point in that chapter
where Tod Clifton is killed after quitting the class wars
when I remembered how you rode the Twelfth Street trolley
on your way home from work, age 66,
still sewing collars in a sweatshop, owning your own house
and saying with a laugh I work for thieves,
adding they're pretty nice thieves
and I suddenly saw your hands at rest on your legs,
heavily propped on the ottoman from the Goodwill store,
and saying We're all the same,
we are all slaves-or
cursing the God who had killed your husband,
an insurance salesman who left you, age 25, a widow
with seven preadolescents and no insurance
We're all slaves,
and it hit me that I have no idea where you are buried.
O Rose, I can recite a thousand plots
and cannot find yours.
A TOMB OF ONE'S OWN
He would write his name in breath then watch
winter publish it on row house glass.
Cold mornings he could not tell his own breath
from cigarette smoke, bent over deliveries
he folded, stacked squared and tossed
from a stake wagon. He sipped every airborne
molecule and flake. Smoke, newsprint, bakery steam,
diapers, Oxydol, motor oil. He exhaled it all
on the glass where he studied its melting.
At sixteen he ran out of breath
talking to Angelina. Her kiss revived him;
later he kneeled in the back pew, slicked with sweat,
while the priest hoisted the bread
and droned hoc est corpus meum ...
Am I smoke? If he had only known
what he was back then! Hard as ice, yes,
arms like the icicle truncheons that sagged
from soffits and gutters. Belly boiler-sound,
skin tight as a snare head on his long bones,
his trunk unpastured park, back unrippled tundra,
and his heart a young thing with wings sailing
up to the mind's highest window
where it stretched and cried
This is my body, this is my blood, take, and eat.
I smell me
coming up behind me
history. The Ark
after the beasts
the motel bed
as the maid draws
the shades, shakes the sheets,
blinks back the stink,
the leafed hollow
where the stalled mower
sits in its exhaust
and smells of wronged
flesh, wing, meat
but me mostly,
climbing the steps,
extract of me,
stinking of me.
—but mainly in October, when the plumber
with his honest eyes jaywalks back to his pickup,
one wheel up on the curb, one door open,
gets a whiff of pipe dope and burnt coffee
and, moved by how lousy he feels,
forgets to shut the door. Why is it he
feels suddenly so weird, as if things are falling away
and the present is a flashback? How is Pretty Ellie
with the delicate features and fingers, how's she doing,
how's Albert from the Northeast, right over the Bridge,
whom he gave up on because he could never find his house,
or Denise who lived in Palmyra with a sick dog
and a life of apologies, or Mike with his AA meetings?
What would his life have been if he had told them the truth?
They were just names now, and names covered them
like pelts on wintering beasts. Before she died,
after the umpteen chemos that were death in life,
did she finally find her passion, a good crème brûlée,
dump that old boyfriend? The wires sing Daienu,
like jump ropes snap against the houses,
and the wind keeps misquoting the summer
he thought he would live forever
and the sky was blue because, just because.
But it's October. The wind sorts things,
a mother going through the sock drawer,
moans through empty porches, rocks the gliders.
October of prepped heaters, bled radiators,
and on porch after porch the jack-o'-lantern holocaust,
toothless and agape and disintegrating.
He swings his tools into the back, slams the cab door,
a vaccination scar bull's-eyed on his bicep.
October, when he drinks his coffee with milk,
and people zombie walk through red lights
and kids on pogo sticks bounce in the distance
like exclamation points, shouting numbers,
running wild, because, just because.
Black woman, late 20s maybe, with a toddler
in a yankees cap at Rafferty's, it's past 9,
what's your story, woman? He's squirmy and four,
his toys lined up by the condiments,
and it's Friday, so the place is jammed—
students, jocks, couple teachers, the usual cell phone zombies.
Why here so late? What's this child doing
eating a healthy spinach salad? As you walk to the bus
he says, Momma, the bus is crinkly, and you say Now, how is that?
and straining in his knapsack he waves his hands
at the heat waves that ripple from the wowing motor
and you say Oh I see standing on the pavement
stiff and dignified against the corrugated night.
Woman, you and he are happier than this whole crowd,
these college kids and their self-conscious professors,
their boomer parents in tragic jeans-and-blazers,
the four sharp dykes behind me,
the hostess with the air-brake voice,
the waitstaff and the girl at the register
with the tongue piercing, snake tats and implants
because you are noble,
you and your fine dinner partner
who attends his sober mother who pays in cash,
holds his left hand tight in her right, house keys in her left.
THE POEMS OF OUR LIVES
years ago I met a guy
at a reading in South Jersey,
who interrupted me by saying
I'm in refrigeration
as his girl was asking me
what kind of a living was poetry.
I looked hard into the dead corners
of his eyes and like a total prick
grinned him down,
got her number,
and rejected his epic
I'm in Refrigeration,
and more or less forgot him,
never actually thought of him,
until today. I wrote a check
and the counter girl took my hand
and said What poor cracked fingers
which she held up like the squashed corsages
that slide out of old books
then smiled me out the door
into noon, blue as antifreeze.
I watched her grin into the register,
glanced at my poor cracked fingers,
and shook at the little we have,
at how others complete us.
—as in antiqued: the eyes,
transoms salvaged from country towns,
where they name the cows, later installed
in upscale rehabs. A blunt beauty:
not sunset's after-flush but concrete's
pallor as it hardens. When his finger
pointed to her heart she would slow down
and smile in his ear. Now, the tangy arrivals
and knobs hung with scarves, all gone. Eventually
he would mourn the memory and its amputated
parts. The book he was reading at that moment,
unfairly, and for good; the number 5
decaled on the beater of the jogger
who came and went as they got in separate cars;
sugar maples like the one shading the bench
where they broke it off; toddlers with Down syndrome,
like the one stumbling over the playground
and about to fall on its face; screwed-up faces,
Wagner, ludes, craniosacral medicine, juicy fruit,
crew cuts, dirty blondes, footprints in mud.
Already he mourned the shirt he wore and the dozen
others on identical hangers. He would tolerate,
for a while longer, the don't-let-the-door-hit-your-ass
gestalt of corporate carpeting, key cards and clerks
in turbans with big cow eyes. This left him
one thing that still cheered him up, stained glass transoms,
but only from the country, and the country depressed him.
Les souvenirs sont cors de chasse
Our story is a noble and tragic mess—
Guy gets girl gets bored—
Untouched by myth, legend, or magic
That might romance the mess,
Make it melodramatic.
Like Thomas De Quincey, who'd drain
His opium sweet and neat
Then muse on his Annie and complain
Oh let her go everything goes
Or my late father-in-law, who deplaned
With a fifth of absinthe in his seabag
Which he left in the back of a cab
And who'd philosophically sigh
Whenever you mentioned Paris
Somehow I'll get over this
Some memories are like dog whistles
Brown as the ground
yet not ground. As the dirt
yet not dirt though
but not tools,
soled but not
solo or soiled
and in my hands
as my oldest friend is cremated
and I dress,
two gaping mugs—
wail by the bed.
(in memory of Ken Eibell)
We had just got thrown out of the Melrose,
were making junk poems out of junk lives,
midnight, waitresses, cop stops, corner punks,
when we started north on Broad and I realized
how fast you were walking, and always did,
always two steps ahead of me, speed-walking
before the name. Then you and Dan
went to Montreal and dropped Blue Cheer
and hallucinated rainbows. Great colors,
Dan said, so you pulled out your Nikon
and snapped and snapped. As he reminded you
it was just a hallucination you said
Yeah, but this is a really good camera.
Then New year's Eve, grabbing my arm
in mid-flashback on the El
you asked me if this was what death was like—
A record suddenly skipping—
and me telling you Calm down, it's like nothing.
Now you know. you're still ahead.
Burnt picture in a bronze gong,
a still life in ash, then in water
when she sprinkles you into the Ganges.
Head south, commingle,
tag along after your mind as it goes
looking for your next body.
THE EL IS FOR LONGING
Somewhere up the tunnel the train I just missed
is lecturing me on longing, its management,
cost and long-term care. It cites Duvaucel,
who saw a gibbon washing the faces of her young
in a dream, so intense was her grief; Gosse,
who was ten when he thought that by drinking seawater
he'd be able to walk on it; Darwin,
who bit off the claws of a kitten with his teeth,
his passion for truth was so deep; Fitzgerald,
who sent Dick, not Nicole, into exile
in "some small town north of Buffalo"
because he so longed for Zelda; and finally me,
on that day I followed that girl as we got off the El
to a brownstone on Twenty-Third and Chestnut and a tall brown door
she closed gently but firmly against me. I have been
looking for her ever since. Every morning
is another equinox. We need redemption
from impossible longing. Forlornly,
the widow registers the change in the leaves
and fingers the taped-up bat in the umbrella stand.
The tracks chorale in stacked fifths. Darwin, Duvaucel,
Dick Diver, you in your whites,
this is where we get off.
(for Joe Stinson)
Half listening to a nearby flat screen where the prez
is lying his lying ass off
the early spring sky looks like it came from an antique store,
the dull red spaghetti-western sky of my youth
when I would get off the bus and cross the street to the automat,
count my change, check the time, and cut class.
In the distance two guys my age, classmates, circled Hawk Hill.
How I lusted for the waitress in her whites and tiny tennis sneakers,
how I stuttered and shook when I ordered,
then watched the hot cereal grow brown sugar sunspots
and sipped my face through the shattered coffee rings.
Across City Line the new draftees who had no deferrals
and whose parents hadn't paid off the draft boards
were boarding green Army buses. I could see their mouths move.
For years I have been eating the same bowl of farina.
I eat it while driving, in the middle of arguments, on the phone,
in bed, while fucking, or lecturing on the Romantics
and my mouth never moves. It is better than what the gods eat
because the gods are immortal and have no remorse.
It is my Eucharist, my molu, my manna, my spinach, my flower of immortality,
and I am eating it right now between his lying answers
because it helps me forget what it must have been like to board a green bus
and not eat farina, cut class, smell clean clothes, sip sunlit coffee,
or watch two guys of draft age run in endless sunny circles.
Excerpted from SWEET SPOT by J. T. BARBARESE Copyright © 2012 by J. T. Barbarese. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Walking Crosstown *
Three Views Of My Father In St. Edmond’s Church *
Sweet Spot *
A Tomb Of One’s Own *
Earth Science *
Open Porches *
At Rafferty’s *
The Poems Of Our Lives *
Distressed Beauty *
After Apollinaire *
Brown Shoes *
The El Is For Longing *
At The Vietnam Memorial*
Mary Jo Kopechne *
Queen Dominic *
Jenny Manfre *
Dirty Pete *
Blue Rondeau *
The Beloved *
Fuck-Me Boots *
Day Of Atonement *
Poem Based On Two Clauses In Copleston’s History Of Philosophy*
Spring, Finally *
Babbitt Blamed Romanticism *
Rudolph On The Roof*
On A Burst Soil Line *
After Dropping The Kids Off *
The Nine Rings Of J.F.K. *