John Wall Barger

Knife Song

“Have you been brandishing that knife all along,” I say. “What knife,” you say. “I’m just saying, I didn’t see that knife when we were dating, how it gleams, like now, right now, nicking and snipping and carving me,” I say. “There is no knife,” you say. “I dreamt I was in prison, you baked me a cake with the knife inside which I ate,” I say. “And,” you say. “And I admire how you prune the dead flowers in our bed,” I say. “Do you think I am a matador in a goddamn Lorca poem,” you say. “Um, no,” I say. “Prove it,” you say. “One time when you are angry, the knife slicing the air between us, flashing like spokes of a world-extensive wheel, I will lean into it, toward you,” I say. “Ah now that,” you say, “would be a death worth surviving.”

Child Soldier Song

There was a bee storm, my sister flung her headscarf over me. A boy, she laughed, will chase a firefly into a nightmare. Hark your sister, my uncle said, She has a grandmotherly heart. Early morning, it was spring, we were ear to ear asleep in the orchard like dogs when the dust unrolled upon us like a rug. The river put on its hat, stumbled off. Infants sucked but there was no milk. My sister and I had a throat-torn goat, dragging it one hoof each over the bladebones and just then out of the woods the thin men stepped, rifles up, like dowsers. Some carried hoes but they were not farmers. The thin men gathered like shadows at the balefire and when finally they slept the wretched hairless dogs edged into the light. The thin men called us boys Little Ones. We drank their wine, sang their songs. We tied our long hair back as they did, with red bandanas. We made noise night and day. In the noise was a silence. They had a bandy-legged bear on a chain. It was blind and danced, milk eyed, like a prophet. The rifle in my hands pointed at a girl in a dragon mask. She shivered as if visioning. I shot, she lifted her arms in praise. They were yelling at the bear, Make him stop, make him stop singing! I slipped out of bed. I carried her to the orchard under the silver tree of the gods. I lowered her in a hole with a firefly in a jar. Time came to cover her but I could not. At dawn, the thin men screamed like eagles and the firefly dissolved.

Bully Song

The schoolkids in bright uniforms ran down the steps to the street. One stopped to stare at me. I knew him: Li’l Roland, son of a boy I’d bullied in grade school, thirty years ago. We’d forced him in a bag and rolled him around, howling, “Roll, Rolly, roll roll roll!” He hanged himself last year, I read. Li’l Roland hopped up to me like a bird, overbite, smiling. The basketball he held so clean it couldn’t have ever touched the ground. He looked me over. “If your body ith not healthy,” he lisped, “your thoul can overcome it.” I grinned. “Is my body unhealthy?” “In th’ name of Yahweh, yeth.” I laughed in his face. “What is Yahweh, Li’l Roland?” He gestured to the glass buildings around us: “If theth mountains had eyeth, they would be Yahwehth face.” “What does your Yahweh say about loss, kid?” As I said this, I rolled his ball down the road, into traffic. He looked at me a long time. I felt a churning sickness in my belly like a river freezing over. I began to cry. The streetlights ignited like multitudinous buds. I don’t know how long he had been holding my hand.

Amateur Escapologists

“I love you, Mandy,” I said, kissing her belly button. “Brandy,” she said. “Tell me everything, Brandy,” I said. “I have a kid named Kandy,” she said. She showed me a photo of a tomboy in a striped baseball cap, big smile, front tooth missing. “Leave her. Run away with me,” I said. Brandy cried and cried. We climbed on a bus.
For years we lived in harmony. Brandy delivered mail for the post office. I waited tables at a diner. Each evening we met at the diner for burgers. We sat in a booth and read letters Brandy had stolen. I held up a foolscap page teeming with tight red loops and read, “With you I climax with such outrage as to stitch a caesura in the pulsebeat of the world.” We laughed and tore it to bits. Brandy found a greeting card. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY,” it said. Inside was written, in wobbly old-world script: “You are quite unnecessary, young man!” A ten dollar bill floated out. We ordered milkshakes. Then Brandy was sobbing, holding an envelope that said “Toof Ferry.” We climbed on a bus. Kandy lived in a tiny unpainted house at the edge of town, near a tent city of homeless vets. Brandy banged on the door. Brandy answered: not a twin, it was her. Brandy stared at Brandy. Brandy said, “Have you heard the roar of the sea?” Brandy replied, “The woods are riddled with paths, untold ways out.” They hugged. My Brandy walked in, calling, “Kandy-cane!” The other Brandy walked out, kissing me softly. Brandy and I climbed the fence and walked through the derelict village of vets toward the bus station.

The Beautiful Heart Attacks

First time I saw her under caustic lights, a grocery store. She was sniffing a pineapple like a black swan under an El Greco storm cloud. I woke in a hospital—dearth and famine of the crushing world upon me—and was released into a taxi. Over and over I imagined her—in passing cars, on barstools, park benches—the vast and surging inner sea of her sniffing the pineapple. To such a man as I had become, everything resembles truth. Everything can happen. After months of upheaval, I saw her again at a museum. She stood staring at a human skeleton riding a horse skeleton. Her yellow dress held the world together. I woke in a hospital, wind crying like a feudal horn, morning light unspeakable. A doctor frowned. Avoid stress, and take these, she said. I took a taxi to the airport. Waited at my gate, eyes lowered. Across from me, bare feet on a red suitcase. Hers. Silence shivered like an oak tree within me. I looked. Last I saw, through the big window: plane after plane rising, humming their little insect songs.


John Wall Barger’s poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Alaska Poetry Review, Rattle, The Awl, The Cincinnati Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His poem, “Smog Mother,” was co-winner of The Malahat Review’s 2017 Long Poem Prize. His fourth book, The Mean Game, came out with Palimpsest Press in spring 2019. He lives in West Philadelphia.  These poems appeared originally in the Alaska Quarterly Review (Child Soldier Song), Prairie Fire (Knife Song), Poetry Ireland Review (Bully Song), Crannóg  (Amateur Escapologists), and Constellations (The Beautiful Heart Attacks).  johnwallbarger.com.