What the Barns Breathe, was published by Paul Deblinger at Window Press in Minneapolis, MN. The book came out in 1982 while I was teaching at University of Cincinnati. I met Paul and his spouse, Trish, at Bowing Green State University where we attended the MFA program together, played softball together on a team sponsored by the Creative Writing Department, and attended hockey games when BG had a truly amazing squad, just before the US beat the Russians for the Gold Medal. A couple of players from the BG team played on that US team, and we were happy to have watched them for two great years. I had a fantastic experience in the MFA program at BG under the guidance of Howard McCord, Fred Eckman and Richard Messer. There were several wonderful poets involved with the program at the time, including Paul Dilsaver, Paul Deblinger, Bim Angst, Bruce Severy, and Jim Daniels. I have reproduced a selection of poems from What the Barns Breathe for this website.
WALKING IN MUD, I HEAR WHAT THE BARNS BREATHE
What each step gives up
wheezes back to me off the barns
the bad lungs sunk on rural estates.
Uneven, the breaths scratch in
with the news. Mrs. Heekin's been
shakey at the druggist, and Fitz's up
to something with the booze.
Marla's hanging fresh wash dotted
with red silk, and her new friend
tugs at the heart in his jeans.
From the blue barn sided with
Red Man Chew, a piece slips in
about Wayne. His wife is home alone
again, and he's gone off to the shack.
Friends claim the freezer there
is lined with spit-shined shoes,
black oxfords. He wears a new pair once
each time an old chum's coffin
gets trotted out.
PUTTING THINGS TOGETHER
There is something not quite right
here. The child of eight or nine,
I can't be sure, pounds a chord at the piano,
his face blurred, his feet dangled over
the pedals. The beveled mirror,
flattened on the wall above him,
is placid, gray in the room's gray light.
There is little else to this room,
except the hospital bed, moored to the wall,
holding as it does so calmly
mother, with a clear plastic mask on,
laid out, relaxed, tapping ever so gently
her knuckles on the chromium rail.
Fall's light through
steeps rose in the soy field's
wool, a husky brown at dusk.
Mother calls and cries
again from the back porch.
Crossed in the fading hues,
frost-light sifting through
October, the railroad men
use their lives up
their two wives one
Dead cats and other
domestic victims hum
black to Engine 9 along the curve.
Their rural dirge is unsettling.
A home front must be near.
Thin layers of smoke peel
from the ceiling over his workbench.
Imagining his potatoes, thin-sliced
and fried to wooden nickels, Billy calls
"Louise?" from his back room bench stool.
Upstairs, she has just finished her
vomiting. A week's worth of dodging bullets
over the condom found wrapped
and settling near the bottom of her purse
has left her stomach nervous,
three times in the past two days.
Rising from a few deep breaths
over the bowl, she remembers his
potatoes. There are heavy bootsteps
up the stairs, then Billy, at two
hundred and sixty pounds,
explodes in her face on the landing.
BIG JOKE IN OHIO
This is Carol's birthday.
We are drinking at the Fish Back Inn.
Three farmers, ball caps
and mud rubber boots
locked into barstools,
chat with backs to us
at the tables. Gone to the bar
for one more round, I ask can we have
a drink for the birthday girl.
The bartender draws beer
and mumbles something I don't hear,
but the farmers laugh into their drafts.
With glasses clinking as I
dance to the table, it's time
for Happy Birthday I am spooning.
Our drunk crowd staggers into singing.
When we finish, we have a little
quiet. Carol says, Thanks a lot.
As soon as I sit
the bar door bursts
and the same three farmers stumble in
hefting a two hundred-pound sow
to their chests, head hanging
limp where her throat's cut. Surprise!
The farmers are yelling, Surprise!.
OLD HAUNTS LIKE ABORTION
A black Olds stopped by a river,
the paved road ahead washed out.
Both hands of the driver rest
wrist-high on the wheel and he's staring.
He looks again like he is thinking,
or is dead, or thinks like the dead
about rivers, how they suck into themselves
and roll, the night flat against
the surface, how water and stars
collide, make atoms spin at birth.
Dark in the rooms of a belly
the traveller sperm, bridegroom, late in the valley,
is weaving his way with a lantern,
a bit on the drunk side and singing.
On nights that pass like this,
old faces, muddied under water, might float
quietly into focus like a cell.
HAVING STOLEN THE WRONG MAN'S MOONSHINE
on the back of Truman Antip's
neck hurdles the fence with him
like a blind man,
pores clenched horribly
over his soul.
Through my window near
the cabin's sickbed, I can hear them
singing, the coondogs,
closing in the light of his scent.
In the night, the still,
the Whiskey Ship,
steams quietly through his wake.
TO YUSEF K. IN FORT COLLINS
You don't just stumble into Gene's Bar
Ford cap clothespinned to your head
without a little flutter
of concern. Not knowing what
a cowboy's thinking or how
the fist & brain explode
for wrong words or no
apparent reason settles rough
as pickled pigs' feet in the belly.
Tread lightly, friend, around this watering hole.
There are laws here. Ones you don't know,
and can't afford to be breaking.
When night vision comes
can be avoided
sonnets from your hypnotist.
All things pass
into the vortex
of bees stuck back in your head.
In the mist and hum
a dead face lifts
a hand with your name
carved on it, "Horse."
Horse with a placid grin.
There is no sound
to your stiff gallop.
It's late dusk
when you find the rails
and glinting up before you.
Heavy ties can feel
the trance your horseshoes make.
you'll never break
when the light
from the train's one eye
swings around the prairie,
where a few trees stand
It's time again to start lifting,
stacking the trunks overhead.
Returned from lunch in the cellar
my partner and I feel gorged. Blood
for the brain pales, dormant in the gut,
but the saw, we've got to get moving
on the saw. Heads go in Locker C
and legs get pitched in bins
behind the icehouse. Tripe and tails
corkscrew down gutter chutes
to the grinder.
Ajax must have started on the mares;
a new batch came in last week.
It's only been since Tuesday
he stopped his gagging on the job.
Says he'd do something different
but he's ignorant,
and his kids need gravy and beans.
This afternoon I'm carrying,
and I hope to tell you I don't mind.
It's a fiver less for the work done,
but I tell you, again, I don't mind.
TIME OFF FOR THE MORGUE ATTENDANT
--for Alan R. Novotny
Dressed in my favorite chair
and plunked in front of the window,
I am tugging all too pensively
on my face hairs. Outside,
leaf mold shifts slightly
at the base of a maple's crimson brain--
food for thinking
of a kind.
My twin must be in Dayton,
city of Delco-Moraine.
Broken-armed and off the job,
his duties jam the hospital's freezer
waiting for his scalpel's eye,
especially the baby who was beaten.
He is, instead, reading a novel,
using his good hand for
the paged turned, his cast arm
for a prop. Privately,
he drifts through Argentina,
drinking gin with a lost goucho sot.
The book, in the end,
is good for him.
Off on the field's far edge
I begin my driving, a slow weave
back toward guns. My brothers
waiting in the blinds and hoping
for a ten point buck,
cradle hushed blue steel
in the V's their elbows make.
It's not so much I trust
their aim, or the trophies
we've shared on other trips,
it's more the thick sense
grown between us: years of hunting
others, animals, our stable of ideas.
They know I'm good at this.
Know the radar I employ
often in clutches
when knuckles are whitened.
We believe in orange hats, the right
steps, in the stock and barrel passed along
from grandpa. Most of all
we believe in the animals. How
maybe they'll run out
of wit or breath for a second.
How they'll understand
when they land on their knees
what they've meant to us.
LETTER TO JOE DON LOONEY
I remember in Chicago
how first you dragged the Bears'
front four to the goal line,
six yards like a steamer.
when you bounced from under
the crush, waving
both shoes overhead
and smiling. We'd never seen
right out of his shoes.
Later that day
Pettibone would hang
for the last ten yards
like a two-legged flag from your jersey.
You were my favorite maverick.
Even when you ran
the wrong way in Detroit
I thought there was hope.
You'd somehow realize
I wanted to be you,
Joe. I wanted
to say to my quarterback
"just gimme the ball
and look outa my way."
Wanted to punch
my spud-nosed coach and yell
Fuck you, Bud Wilkinson!
But I had shortcomings...
No faith in my own insanity.
Yesterday my wife
read me the article:
"Don Looney Finds Peace
with Baba." A guru?
For Joe Don Looney?
I had trouble with my throat.
What happened, Joe?
I wanted to call you up
say Hello, and I'm still your fan...
and you don't need
that, Joe. Say No to Baba
and his faithful bee-bee brains.
No to the Cosmic Cruiser.
You're a mustang, Joe,
and I need to know you're out there,
plagued with strength
and disbelief. Crazy
in this world, somehow.
--this poem was inspired by Harry Truman
who loved his lodge near Mount St. Helen.
I am not dead yet.
The slim fire of a month ago
has taken its turn for the worse.
Ash flakes doze in the air
and the path out now is closed
by fallen timber. I can see how
animals might have a chance.
Your Guernsey can forget it.
The radio's been crackling
through morning, and the sheriff
made his way out early in his Jeep.
He left as always with the same
slap he gives me between the blades,
his rear-end bobbing over gravel
toward his sheep-skinned seat.
The quiet afterwards felt better.
I patched the new sills you mentioned
were leaking, and trimmed hedge
at the back of the lot. The cabin,
in fact, looks better than you've ever seen it.
You were right about problems
with the hose, though. I wrecked the early
lettuce when I watered last.
Twenty-one years over the same garden
and somebody makes a watering system
to screw me up. It's like the fire,
the "new techniques" designed to cure it.
I've been here too long to be salvaged
at the last. You, and your wizened truths,
Yours from the spit of my heart,