John Barr




Dante at Shiloh


I.

I found myself in the aftermath.  
Cannonades had set the woods ablaze,
felled whole trees, swept the earth

with canister and grape.  From bodies
and body parts heaped up by musketry
(Aim low and be deliberate, boys.),  

a strangeling crawled––Blue or Gray  
I couldn’t tell––from the Minie balls’ last meal.  
Straining to break their cannon free,

dead horses, still in harness, hauled.  
Voices out of the burning undergrowth
wept for water as the field fell still.  

At the iron dice of war, both sides lost.  
Wild pigs won, squabbling over their feast.  


II.

It started to rain and with it came a troop
of orators––men of God,
carpetbaggers of every stripe.  

Gingerly, to avoid the mud,
they stepped from one corpse to the next,  
crossing the swamp, slipping on blood.  

One started to speak, “Brethren in Christ . . .”
but stopped, perplexed, to see another man
wearing his face.  This progressed,

speaker after speaker, until soon
each searched in panic through the group,
and when he found his stolen face, that one

he mounted and buggered, like boar on boar––
in self-love or -loathing, I wasn’t sure.  


Water’s Work
It takes 500 years for the ocean’s waters
to complete one trip around the earth.  
––National Geographic Society

The prodigal returned, a bride running late,
it races from the street,
climbs the plumbing in the walls
to the bathroom tap, then halts.

Water is weather.  Pulled from swells
out where cyclones make the only news,
its vapor rises to the poles,
refreshes bergy bits, brash ice, floes––

or crosses longitudes to fall
as shoures soote upon us all,
then drains away to aquifer.  
Weather is God’s will writ small.  

Water is extended metaphor:      
Its antecedent, alchemic character   
commonly denominates
all things, in compound or by temperature.  

4 a.m.  Fill the glass.  
Let the molecule from Christ
stand again in human state
even as it quenches thirst. 


The Power & Light Company
                                    For MKM

Under the Used and Useful Principle
a public utility may charge customers
only for assets that are used and useful
in providing service to those who pay for it:
power plants, transmission lines, the sum total
of what it takes to make power and light.  

Most of those with needs for power and light
in their lives work from a different principle.
Power—prerogative with impunity—is total
by nature, not a thing to sell to customers.
Those who gain it keep it.  Having it
befits them, whether used or useful.  

Light, on the other hand, is useful
when it gives illumination; think how light
reflecting off the moon reveals it, renders it.  
Whether gaining and keeping is the principle
or giving is, matters to customers.  
The one’s cost, the other’s benefit is total.  

Can those receiving service unbundle the total,
choosing the light, which is nothing if not useful,
but not the power which is not for sale to customers
in any case?  Does having the light
without the power offend some principle
of commerce?  If so, are we compelled to honor it?

We know from history, replete with it,
that power does not abide what it can’t control:  total
antipathy portends the death of principle.   
If we take only the light, can it be useful
without the power?  If not, of what use is the light?
That is the quandary for customers.  

And face it, our lot is to be customers:
Something received, things taken in return for it.  
Light without power or power without light.  
How do we keep the dark from turning total
when we ourselves would be the used and useful?
When giving our lives a purpose is the principle?  

Caveat emptor, customers.  The game is total,  
your lives for it:  You will be used if you are useful.  
But as to power and light, let light be principal.



John Barr was President of the Poetry Foundation for its first decade. He is the author of six books of poems and three fine press editions. His work is also widely published in magazines. Recent books, from Red Hen Press, include The Hundred Fathom Curve: New and Collected Poems and The Adventures of Ibn Opcit, a two-volume mock epic. Dante in China, a collection of new poems with introduction by Ilya Kaminsky, was published in 2018. See johnbarrpoetry.com for more.








                                    

 

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