Don Willis, were you born or translated?
Your mother was a language,
a mama. You cried in English.
You cried for what you did not yet know,
a nipple and warm milk.
Your mother nursing you did not think
she brought you and 150 books into the world.
The Angel of Death cried ‘murder, murder,’
I’m talking from left to right.
The opposite of a crime is a good deed.
How many bodies and souls have you
and your children tried to save?
I swear by Apollo,
on Parnassus there is a Barnstone Hotel.
I’ve been a bellboy, a hall porter,
a detective at that hotel.
Or putting it another way,
spinning the globe of the world around
on a ship, a trireme called the Barnstone,
in the mess of poetry, you dined
with Baudelaire, San Juan de la Cruz, Borges.
Chairman Mao refused to come aboard.
“He was with the masses.”
In a rush to cross the ocean of poetry,
I’ll quote you a Willis Barnstone sonnet, made of
all last lines chosen at random from his poems:
Pain is a small star we all eat to live.
The dizzying space makes a blinding glow.
I grieve. Borges’ dead eyes are fixed in a dream.
There is a terrible melancholy in our land.
My body, empty of spirit, persists in learning
nothing at all.
Overhead the sun is a violet-fire blowtorch.
Grandmother bleeds to death. My father’s born.
If God were smart,
he’d take that knife–penitent–to his wrist.
It’s raining in your soul.
It’s dawning underground.
We were gazing outward, as from the airless moon,
At the white sun through the blackened sky.
In the zoo of life, Willis is a seal
balancing the world on his nose.
He’s a worker cleaning up the dung
of tigers and monkeys.
In the nearby botanical gardens
he’s a field of poppies, an apple tree,
a stone wall to keep Barbarians out.
His life is a a dream, a metaphor
for self indentured labor.
He lived the good TB life
between the pages of Apocrypha,
Another Bible, from Revelation to Genesis.
Eros was delighted
watching Willis dance with Rabbi Jesus
up and down the temple steps.
He painted a beautiful bestiary:
he had the gift to praise what others
often scorned, animals and poets.
Say this of Willis Barnstone, he drives
with no hands on the wheel.
After his driving conversation, he dines,
eats more slowly than the Sphynx
chews on camel meat.
He’s a sandstorm, an epic, a caesura.
Look at his face,
his eyes and eyebrows are calligraphy.
His mouth is French, his nose Andalusian.
His navel is Maine and Hoosier state.
His private parts are the United Nations.
His right ear can hear Rilke
while his left ear hears Homer.
Did he shave at the Battle of Lepanto?
He dreamed dangerously that he saved Seneca,
Willis assassinated Nero.
He coughs Beijing coal, Gobi Desert sand
and California forest fire smoke.
He says he believes
God does not cough anyplace.
By the way, when his father and brother
killed themselves, they killed Willis,
who sits and attends a constant Shiva,
wake and keening.
He mourns and walks naked
between a pride of lions, a unicorn,
a herd of wildebeests locking horns.
He kissed the serpent of knowledge.
Now he lives with Sarah Handler, wife,
Mother Teresa of Chinese furniture.
They were first married by computer in Berkley,
then by ex-Rabbi Gerald Stern at my house.
Every day is a wedding party.
Every day and night
Willis works, bakes and eats that cake of life,
that is perhaps a sweet metaphor
for a library never closed.
Alas, at a distance coming closer,
there is a magic mountain of burning books.
At 3am, in the dark and half light
of Oakland that’s Willis with buckets of water
and ink, trying to put out the fires of evil.
A book of his poems, Not Yet, was published in September by Seven Stories Press, distributed by Random House. A new book, Always Alwaysland, will be published by Seven Stories Press, distributed by Random House, in June 2022. A selected poems is due to be published by Carcanet in the U.K. in 2022.