georgic; the transfiguration; state of the union
By: Steve Barichko
i begin as a giant priest
swinging smokeboxes among rows of temples
the combs are for cutting out for dripping into mouths
the drones don’t mind the queen wingless and asleep
her head daubbed in blue she is year zero
fewer things than i think are ruby breasted
mostly birds stilling themselves in the nearby brush
eating the soldiers on patrol in one mouthful
the sound of my twenty two lifts them from their perches
some flush and circle back as though tethered
what coward shoots a wood duck in the back as it drops
wings out to its mate’s lower perch in the trees
i follow its chest swelling and thumping in a leaf pile
make out eyes that have been watching me approach
with a look of betrayal i thought only people had
next hunting trip i turn the gun on myself and fire
in eagerness to prove i am not afraid
and that having deduced my omen fate will not take me
right then anyway but i had palmed the round
i am that sort of coward
banished to the exhaustion of older girls
repetitions and ratios of campfire apple pie
the one who slips the pans onto the embers has red knuckles
tells me smart runaways wait until summer
they pack watermelon and fried chicken and nothing else
i say to no one teach me the trick to slipping past
small-town cops and rows of trees all stapled no trespassing
the answer came when a stray collared one-eyed dog
kept pace with me for twelve miles even after i slipped him free
it had been days since i called anything by a name
i am a plus one at a wedding in santa fe when i look at the familiar ditch
of her spine she sends me up to our room i check my horoscope i am still moored
to nostalgia for lost futures i could be a suzerain if i learned to be my own other half
so i take and eat both tamales saved in the mini fridge grab the complimentary book
of vagina poppies and check my bank account before going out for mezcal
three drinks under the big moon the mesa has invaded my new england sensibility
thumbing through high gloss repros i am ready to offer cut poppies to my feminine half
stem first down my throat like copulation
like a bleached longhorn skull every orifice a vase
state of the union
after fifty years
they’re exhuming neruda
he really was poisoned
everyone is texting
an ex or two
reading hometown obituaries
and coloring books
making too much
in waterfront park
noosed face up
on monument avenue
beat a black grubhub delivery man
on a bicycle
police chief at press conference
and i quote
what cutting edge
the race kidnapped
for four hundred years
has been aware of it
this whole time
met opera bankrupt
the magic flute
all sorts of good heartbreak
on bad perfume
nyt arts section
stream him at home
dean and deluca
wear a mask
with your dog
fourth of july
groups of seven
at a night bonfire
humid and windless
four beers in
shoot bottle rockets
where did you get
the size of cantaloupes
rough and rowdy ways
james taylor aged out
took only one year
nearly gone voice shaky weak
unsure eyes welled up with
happiness of dementia
the crowd is there for him
doesn’t know why
beyond decay is the ear
beyond decay age seventy nine
what the hell are you
at the tulsa rally
they like their punchlines
we’re hiring the karate kid
to fight kung flu
don’t say their names
if they could talk
they could breathe
air force one
is thirty years old
time for an upgrade
they want to defund
but our new bullet casings
when they hit
Steve Barichko loves eating food cold and was the voice of Jafar in Aladdin II. His work has most recently appeared in FeedLit Magazine. He is a 2020 Pushcart Prize nominee. Find him on Twitter and Insta @stevebarichko.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
Since about 2005.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
I can’t. But I know that Latin American and Spanish poetry was what hooked me first, so probably something by Pablo Neruda. Something from his 100 Love Sonnets. Or Lorca--that one that goes “the light of understanding has made me more discreet.”
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
Jim Harrison has everybody beat. His poem “Barking” is probably my favorite poem. He is probably the best ghazal writer in the English language. That book of ghazals of his that’s out of print--you see it on Amazon for like two hundred bucks. Captivating book. I dropped a chunk of money to have that one. Anne Carson is another favorite. No one is doing what she’s doing. She says that good art finds a new way to make the mind move. Her whole book Plainwater. Or Red Doc.
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
My process is very chaotic and probably unhealthy, because I’m never not in the zone. I dont have trouble getting in. I have trouble getting out. I spend the whole day running images, lines, and words through my head just twisting and turning them over and over. It never stops. I have to have things that help me disconnect or turn it off. Reminds me of how Miles Davis said the music in his head never stops.
So I have a notebook that goes with me everywhere and that contains everything. Whole and half lines, chunks of finished stuff, headlines from New York Times articles that I like. Names of paintings. Tweets--Twitter has some great unintentional poetry in it. Words I like. It’s all in there. Free writing. Stuff that just goes nowhere. And all of that among pages of the poem I’m actually working on at the time.
How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
I want to be a form poet very badly. But I suck at it. I love the idea of ghazals but I’ve only written one or two that don’t feel forced. I love forms like pantoums and sestinas and all that. I love how they operate. But everytime I do them, you can see the seams showing. It’s forced and poorly made. I haven’t figured out the trick to it yet and maybe I won’t.
In the more general sense of how something looks, the poem absolutely dictates what it’s going to look like. I don’t know how it works but if you’re paying attention, you can feel how it should go. Double spaced lines, long lines or really short ones, couplets. I do all those and it’s never on purpose. It’s never something I set out to do. It just feels right.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
Read a lot. And not just poetry. I learned more about poetry from my short fiction class at a magnet school in New Haven than the poetry class they offered there. It was taught by a Hemingway scholar, and reading those short stories gave me my ear for language in my poetry. I was raised in a Fundamentalist Christian household and absolutely carry biblical cadence with me. So you don’t need to read poetry to find your voice or your ear for what works. You just need to absorb everything that comes to you and you cobble together what you like.
The other piece of advice is much shorter and I’m real proud of this one because I like to think I invented it. I have absolutely learned over the years that what separates really serious poets from amateur ones is ruthlessness and the ability to accept that you’ll never get it right the first time. A great writer writes 11 pages, throws away the first 10, and publishes the last one. A bad writer publishes all 11.
What is your editing process like?
I’m a compulsive rewriter and reviser as I go. Rarely is anything ever finished in one cohesive first draft. I have tried to work other ways and I just can’t. Open my notebook and you’ll find a poem written and rewritten, spanning pages and pages. Always to the part I get stuck on or don’t like, and then you’ll see it rewritten to that part over and over with a whole bunch of shit all around it or things changed as I’m trying to get it right. There’s whole pages of just one line I’m working on being written and rewritten. That’s just how it goes. If I get really fed up I’ll shelve the poem and come back to it, or I’ll figure out how to get myself over that hurdle and move on to the rest of it if I have more ideas. The rewrites get cleaner and cleaner as the pages go on and eventually I’ll have a workable full version, which, if I’m lucky, I’ll just tinker with a little bit here and there, rewrite a couple more times whole, and it’ll be done.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
When you have a solid draft you can write and rewrite in your sleep practically and get to the point where you’re just spinning your wheels and tinkering around and none of what you do seems to be bettering the work. Leave it for a day, come back and read it, and you’ll usually find that it has been trying to tell you it’s done. You can always tinker but that doesn’t mean you should.
But also, you sort of never do know. Some never feel done even when they’re done. Maybe that’s because good poems open a door and let you walk in instead of presenting you with a brick wall. Some you just have to choose to let go.