Trained Bears

My fifth summer
between my long-haired parents,
rolling East in our blue
’64 Dodge truck,
California to Nova Scotia,
all we own out back
under flapping mackinaw blankets.
Truck a barge floating the earth
and we, Mister Man, are the Bargers.
For weeks on the highway
I am wind, the blue truck bone.
We roll to a stop in the woods.
At night beyond our wicklight,
the truck a dark mammal
in a larger darkness,
heavy among the singing frogs.
We drive an old brown horse
—eyes gaping, lips loose—
slow as the truck will go
along the dirt road.
In Halifax, Dad backs up
to my window. The blue truck
sleeps years in a coma,
going turquoise. Then, gone.
Gentle peasant, big hands,
dirt under the nails.
Silent big-boned uncle
with PTSD. When Dad
turned off the ignition
it shook for a few seconds.
I felt rather than saw
how it shook. I feel it still,

now thinking of how, years before,
Neal Cassady shook
after driving the Prankster Bus
all night on speed,
and his wife Carolyn held him.
Gabbing too fast, too much,
amok. Sight gags. He
gallops, prances, dances,
story-tells, pill-pops,
driving, driving, driving!
His anachronistic parlance—
kundalini, state troopers,
Armageddon, John 15:1
—paranoic riffing without climax,
whirlpools of words
turning, turning
as if by their own power.
You were the Beat
who could not write.
Skinny, tense, smile a trip wire.
Fallen gnomic prophet
out of a Blake poem,
pestilential monk
out of The Canterbury Tales,
whose monologues
charm us for a few pages.
Sweet, social, obedient.
A trained bear, Carolyn
called him. One day in ’68,
in Guanajuato, Mexico,
Cassady, in T-shirt and jeans,
blind drunk, staggered
into a wedding party,
drank wine, ate tortillas
and secobarbital. Later
crawling on hands and knees
out into the rain. At forty-one,
past tired, his body quit.
On that railroad track
they laid a tarp upon him.

John Wall Barger

John Wall Barger

John Wall Barger’s fourth collection of poems, The Mean Game (Palimpsest, 2019), was a finalist for The Phillip H. McMath Book Award. His fifth book, Resurrection Fail, is forthcoming with Spuyten Duyvil Press (Fall 2021). He teaches Creative Writing in the BFA program at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
John Wall Barger

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Author: John Wall Barger

John Wall Barger’s fourth collection of poems, The Mean Game (Palimpsest, 2019), was a finalist for The Phillip H. McMath Book Award. His fifth book, Resurrection Fail, is forthcoming with Spuyten Duyvil Press (Fall 2021). He teaches Creative Writing in the BFA program at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.