Friday, December 16, 2011


At night I sit by the holiday tree with a warm cup,
remove my glasses for the effect. Nearsighted,
each light simmers, distorted as if through tears.

From this vantage the packages below are simply
colors, the tinsel glass, candy canes and ornaments
merely shapes with the secret desire to become.

Begin at the sturdiest of branches: Grandmother
(long since passed) crafted the large Styrofoam balls
wrapped in golden ribbon, studded through with

green and silver foil sequins. Just above, the wooden
cutouts of sleighs, rocking horses, and stockings,
tenderly painted with my sister (now gone, too).

Higher now, the pendants of our journey, the
absurd tin boat from Nags Head, the horses from
Kentucky, our weekends in Door County, your

childhood treasures and the porcelain frames of
our girls as infants; each branch an ascendant
stanza of our lives. A map begins to form of our

travels and our histories, all fashioned by tight
twine. These rough threads braid us in this frail
journey. Around it all the parochial rosary of a

cranberry garland strung through by silver thread,
all this life bound sacred then, true. This tree of love
and dreams and memories that guide us, green as

the breath of spring, each blossom held in place
by a simple white angel perched atop, her grace the
quiet gravity that holds everything named Peace.

--c. 2011, by Martin A. Bartels (working draft)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Difficult River

Driving south, seams in the road bump out an arrhythmic heartbeat.
Signs punctuate the journey: Lexington 140 miles, Straw for Sale,
Jesus is Coming, Jesus is Here, Psychic Readings $20, Make an Offer—

Cars for Sale, the last being timely because at some point between
origin and destination we will surely break down. We believe we can
travel in straight lines knowing that nature won’t tolerate it.

Overheard (buyer to salesman):
I’d like to believe that you believe everything you’re saying.
I’m fallible that way (not to be confused with gullible), but this
verse that is life demands a certain poetic restraint.

More signs: Towns named Challenge, Minuet, and Strawberry,
they all meld together, each green sign might be the name of
someone you’ve met and moved beyond. And then the bridge over

Difficult River. I cross it in a moment of distraction, until the name
catches up with me and I’m forced to pull over, stunned. We brand
our places with hopeful or borrowed names but rarely with the

candor our lives demand. Difficult River, one needs no map to
know its path and history and every resident on its shores.
The tentative sunrises and the ways both light and darkness reflect.

Driving to Omaha during the floods, I stopped at the peak of
verdant bluffs and couldn’t help but stagger before the enormous
Midwest ocean that had once been farmland. Convincing evidence

that rivers must be the first gods. I walk to the edge of Difficult River 
considering prayer but opt for an impromptu picnic. We have rare 
moments of so-called clarity but then I’m not certain what all the 

other moments are. It’s easy enough to convince myself that I am the 
only person who has sat upon this rock and so some acknowledgment 
must be in order. I toss a coin into the water and ask that this river 

carry me past all the unrelenting dramas. That we might portage 
through this boundary water known as life, complaining of all we 
might have left behind for its extraneous weight, but in the end

let grace wash over us, that we were both here to carry it.
This is the one thing I don’t get about angels: their capacity to
forgive forever exceeds the baggage of our souls.

--c. 2011, Martin A. Bartels (working draft)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Everything before has come to this,
careful settings and a gracious banquet.

We spent the days laying out the plan: roast 
turkey dressed with sage, orange, cloves; sauteed

Brussels sprouts with red onion; bread dressing 
with sausage and thyme; rutabaga (mashed);

cranberry chutney evolved through years of 
family tables. Outside, wet leaves drape 

the earth in colors of roast turkey and 
sweet potatoes. Men gather at the screen

for sports, not news. We’ve had enough of that 
this year, we agree. Aunt brings the sweetened

casserole, different each year. Worries 
of her job, her health, children’s grades and their 

latest misbehaviors, all mask her pride 
in them. They smile indulgently, roll their 

eyes. Mum brings the maligned cream corn, not so 
bad really, but an object of myth. Her 

years of aches and pains are annual sides. 
Uncle brings jokes and cigars, bottle of 

bourbon this year (scotch last), he wears this last
year of age like ten or twenty. Grandma, 

grandpa, and ghosts of all who have made this 
table before evoke unexpected 

memories from the linen and grayed plates. 
At the table prayer is said, wine poured and 

turkey carved, the children dance like powdered
sugar. Thank You for this sacred chaos. 


--c. 2011, by Martin A. Bartels (working draft)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Anya and the Glass Bowl

At the picnic, Anya (of Russian descent),
you told me how much the simple glass mixing
bowl meant to you, that it had once belonged to
babka, and at once I saw her aged hands and

wooden spoon working the pirozhki dough:
flour, baking powder and salt (a hefty pinch),
butter, eggs, and the secret ingredient—
sour cream. Or maybe I saw my own

grandmother’s hands (of French lineage),
dusted in flour for cookies or dinner rolls
as I perched on the back step pinching chives from
her simple garden. Turning over the green,

urgent sapor on my tongue, oblivious
to the fact that the moment was formative
somehow, would one day become a dear memory:
A flavor profile forecasting my own love

of cooking. At the picnic you peeled off
the cellophane, revealed a simple slaw:
cabbage shredded fine, dressing airy and
sour-sweet, I don’t know how you made it though I

must have asked for the recipe, just as
I no longer know how I ended up with the
bowl. I said I’d take it home for you, sure we’d
meet again. We never did. For years I

kept it hidden from harm imagining that
one day you might knock on my door and I would
hug you, say yes, I have your bowl. I’ve kept it well.  
You never knocked. Finally, last night, I pulled

it from its secret place, its tinted walls
thickened by layers of the weight of time,
began to chop carrots, onions, celery;
the start of a fine beef stew. Left unused the

bowl was emptier, somehow vacant, a
condition our grandmothers never would have
tolerated. Now filled it reminds me of
you. You spoke of sacred Russian icons

decorating whitewashed church walls and your
memories of childhood, playing p’yanitsa
in the haze of your uncle’s smoke, glass bowl
full then of tastes you could never replicate.

--c. 2011, Martin A. Bartels (working draft)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Common side effects may also include...

“Tired” will lose meaning and you 
will no longer know how to answer a 
simple “How are you?”

You may wake up and experience a
sudden hunger for silence,
noise, or distant places.

Things may take on their true size.
You will temporarily forget what matters.
You will revisit an old faith or invent a new one.

There is a kind of dementia that temporarily
spreads to your loved ones. We hear voices
in our heads that aren’t always kind.

You told me you hear them, too.

Streetlights may spontaneously dim
or light up when you pass.

The deconstruction of your marriage,
the reconstruction of your love,

the unbearable kindness of strangers,
but inevitably, also, the
unbearable strangeness of kindness.

--c. 2011, Martin A. Bartels (working draft)

Friday, November 4, 2011


The women sat beside me, casually intimate, clearly 
together, each a glass of wine and sharing a 

charcuterie plate; the insouciance of meat, the 
pale pate, shaved speck a marbled red, the dark 

lamb sausage lusty and earthen, yellow mustard, 
rustic bread. I couldn’t help but notice what was 

unsaid in the white margins and unpainted spaces
of their presence. I began to sketch her secretly, 

ink scratches really, the shocking blonde, the poised 
way she slipped into her barstool, her fashionable shawl 

tracing the shape of her body as the arm of a friend 
draped over her shoulder, an unconscious comfort. 

Each part of her clothing held a pattern, net tights
flowing from Burberry-plaid skirt, rope cable sweater,

and the shawl, pale blue knit, loose tassels so that
in motion she was only motion, your eyes couldn’t

rest in a single place for long, stealth clothing. 
Farmers once sealed the wood of barns from

rusted cans of linseed oil, sometimes blended with the 
spilled blood of livestock. The resulting tint dried a

ruddy brown-red, a fabric that became rural decor,
barns now signposts between farmland neighbors.

We reveal ourselves through social camouflage,
the weave of our histories etched in sacred origami. 

--c. 2011 Martin A. Bartels (working draft)

Thursday, October 27, 2011


The movement of the clouds 
makes the earth spin faster.

There is no space between 
horizon and sky.

In Genoa the hotel window
opened to an industrial port

while the television spilled
insistent news into the shallow room.

I longed for a familiar word and went
momentarily crazy for lack of English.

Distances expose our most 
vulnerable selves. I still remember

the blue wine bottle that cast 
blue moonlight on your skin in

Positano, the taste of raisins wrapped
in lemon leaf that clung to your lips.

I mine these memories because
I have none left, there is only the 

dream of going forward,
where no one else has been.

--Martin A. Bartels (working draft)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Address Book

Colorado, Illinois, Virginia, these the
predominant states in my address book,

each home a temporary stop on a journey
defined not so much by destination but place.

Home is a door that opens inward and contains
our breath, our cries, the ghosts of our passions.

Home is a stairway that climbs and descends, the 
choice of direction unknown until we arrive.

Walls, then, must be designed to protect us from the
embarrassing display of our spirits’ disarray.

Home is also a door that opens outward,
as I discovered upon learning of distance.

We step first foot outside, inhale, and are seduced
by sirens of potential in remote places.

* * *

An old red house stands vacant beside a scenic 
rural road in the hills of northern Virginia.

Two willows occupy the land beside a stream
fed by springs and winter’s residue. No doubt the

land here was once trod by soldiers; battlefields near
yield fertile grasses, in fall they turn blood-amber.

But this house stands pondering. Wisdom seeps out of 
twenty well-placed windows from which timorous ghosts

view themselves as children; aging, dying as 
must be the final way of all we witness.

You are drawn to this place. You peer inside one warped
single-pane window through sunlit dust and stillness,

the only furniture an old desk. Wide-plank floors 
creak beneath the weight of the past. Walls sigh.

* * *

Distance itself may be the first illusion. 
Now is only now and not where we are bound.

There may be a lesson: The first step is not where 
the journey of one thousand miles begins. It starts 

the moment that our fingertips touch the doorknob. 
Before its squeaky turn unlocks bolt from wood, 

before the door is pulled on lazy hinges to
look outside or in, before we exhale.

And when we next inhale, we are hurtling 
through life’s rain of lovers, grief, and redemption.

Love is a poor excuse for a travel guide 
and there are no cartographers of the human heart.

Meet me on the front porch of the red house. I will 
wait for you so we may open this door together. 

--Martin A. Bartels (working draft)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Prayer of the World

The lions, tigers, and chimps ran free,
let loose upon a modern world from which 
there is no escape. So fearfully we took aim, 
all of us, really, and shot them dead. 

We grieve our fear and our loss of humanity. 

To end the despot’s rule we picked up arms, 
all of us, really, and brought him down with 
vengeance as was due. “For all of us, it is a hard 
road, because our battle is against ourselves.”*

We take over power that will inevitably dictate us. 

There should be hope in this: That among the
uprisings one group lays down arms, says it will
no longer kill to fight, but not so fast: All of us, really,
for survival’s sake, remain skeptics of peace. 

We lift up to some god our hopeless hearts.

It should be no surprise, then, as markets crumple 
that we uncover the final irony: All of us, really, are 
linked not by dollar, yen, euro or pound, but by the
common need to bear up under the weight of it all.

We are broken and impoverished. Mend us, heal us.

These may all be lessons that we’ve learned before.
All of us are prisoners of someone else’s war.
All of us are victims of someone else’s crime.
All of us are powerless, by our own design.

--Martin A. Bartels (This poem first appeared in Poetry24

*Ahmed Ounaies, as quoted in the New York Times 10/23)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Everything of You

Though it is very difficult to imagine, 
that you might not have all of this, 
one day it may be gone, 
the everything of you. 

That is, if you count your self among the 
things you possess and that possess you, 
if you measure worth by value instead of
action, if you allow your comfortable fictions

to become the definition of you, they will 
almost certainly one day fail you. Do not
feel guilt for what you have and what you hold,
do not fear for its loss, but best be prepared 

and get to know the other you, get to know it 
well. Know the self you will be when the hunger 
and the thirst and the fear of open night take you, 
when you must make the impossible choice 

with your last dollar or dime or penny, know the 
gnawing doubt of when the next check will arrive 
and the impotent fury at how much of it remains 
after the fees of poverty and desperation are imposed. 

Know the you that wanders empty of heart and
frightened mind, through street or field or desert 
seemingly abandoned by God, so you are certain 
that this must be where you finally belong. 

And then know the you that takes the next step, 
and the next. Though it is very difficult to 
imagine, the nothing of you, you might.
And that is, after all, the miracle of you.

--Martin A. Bartels (working draft)
(Author's note may be found under comments)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Single-Breath Cabin Poems

Our canoe drifts out,
paddles launch ripples that
die unseen, far away.

Sunlight pierces trees,
sideways cones of fire that light
this green heart, my heart.

Lake, bordered by pines, 
reflects just one cloud. I rest 
here, seeing double.

Afternoon rainfall
drenches us and lines your face 
with happy tears.

Sunset lights up cloud 
bellies. Looking downward, do
they see such beauty? 

Full moon displaces
stars that would have settled on
this lake like cinders.

--Martin A. Bartels (working draft)
(Author's note may be found under comments)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Starlings in Rome

Outside Stazione di Roma Termini, packs heavier 
on our backs than the elation we feel at having 
finally arrived, we stand as lost as any tourist. 

The specific foreignness of it all impresses us
so heavily, extricated from our familiar selves by the 
most mundane of things. People mill nearby in 

casual entrances and exits. Above us, an arcane  
dance: The coffee-filter swarm of starlings at flight, 
weaving so intricately that time below seems suddenly 

irrelevant. Few people notice them, the thousands of 
birds, perhaps they are so common here that locals 
are simply immune to their magic. I once read about 

a syndrome of sorts, that some suffer seizures after 
viewing too many extravagant cathedrals, too much 
extraordinary art, something in hindsight I might think 

a good way to go. I don’t know if it’s true. You noticed 
me noticing them, the birds, and we stared together 
seeking meaning. One saw birds, merely starlings, the 

other saw the possibility that within their flight was the 
shape of God’s own DNA in constant motion, ever  
reinventing, the single breath of enlightenment.

--Martin A. Bartels (working draft) 

Friday, September 30, 2011


Given the
long history
of life on earth
one must finally
conclude that
everything we
walk upon is, in
some way, death.
The ash and detritus
of a trillion bones and
skin, marrow and
blood all ground to
dust. In time we all
master the art of
some more gracefully
than others. The
dinosaurs left bones
but nothing in the
way of useful
The cavemen left
some lovely
paintings, proving
that art must be
our second language.
Pots and pans of
lost civilizations
fill museums, the
digs themselves
strange mazes
of all that is forgotten.
The architecture of
our love is more fragile
than those walls.

--Martin A. Bartels (working draft)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Five Three-Sentence 'I Love You's'

At ten thousand feet above sea level, the night sky is 
palpable with starlight. If you stare long enough you 
begin to fall upward, levitating toward infinity.
I was lost for a moment in you being lost.

At last count there were more than twenty-nine thousand
things that might cripple our hope. Stalled economies
rarely take into account the desperate needs of lovers in
turmoil, politicians singularly unpoetic
Love is an unpredictable buffer against such angst.

I still seek symbols and omens in common experience. 
They are most often lacking and I wonder at my 
insistence on meaning. It could be that everywhere I 
looked, the only answer was you and I wasn’t listening.

The closing door is a distinct goodbye, effective as a 
period and not quite an exclamation point. You wouldn’t have 
heard because I whispered them—the words, I mean.
The ones you wanted to hear when you first opened the door. 

After all this time we still struggle with what it means to love.
It is difficult to accept that, at times, it may be only to endure.
This might then be the final measure of true love: The 
elderly lovers--hands grasped mutually, frail bodies 
bent at angles designed to keep one another upright.

--Martin A. Bartels (working draft)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Tori Amos

(poem II of Star Cycle)

The setting: a university musicians' workshop, 
Northwestern, students gather in nervous clusters, 

fireflies circling. Whip-frayed and glowing, your
dangerous locks stray loosely around the room, weave us

into a diaphanous quilt. The questions: Where do your 
songs come from? Do you write music or words first? 

And for sheer genius how could any of us match “...little 
Fascist panties tucked inside the heart of every nice girl”? 

This is simply unfair. Siren and muse, elemental candy, 
you sit at the piano—the black & white behemoth that 

swallows you, your fingers tease it at first, coax the artist's
something-that-never-before-existed, the dissonant 

sound palette. You are a force possessing. It is possible 
in this auditorium filled with people to close my eyes and 

believe we are alone, to pray that I become the piano, 
though I must acknowledge the sobering realization that 

everyone here has just done the same. we are powerless 
in your aftermath. we are drenched in your sweat.

I do not remember the hello or goodbye, but am of a
memory of a glancing hug, a Euro kiss, a freckled cheek

lacking makeup, framed by fragrant hair, the scents of 
rose, patchouli, earth, and damp forest, the Tori-speak 

of irises and unicorns, mythos and mysticism, of your  
world into which we can only yearn to have been born.

--Martin A. Bartels (working draft)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Plural of Grief

Driving after an overnight ice storm the morning sun
crested hills, glancing trees just so: There illumined, a
staggering array of diamonds or earth-bound starlight,
an ice-glazed land without explanation or want of one.

I would have painted or photographed that scene, and
believe still that the light itself would have defied such
capture. I am left to mere words. They are inadequate
but all we have, discomfited as we are by silence.

I look to words to describe that November’s sainted frost,
the drenching humidity of a mid-Atlantic August,
how what seems so simple to others befuddles me,
how I excel at what seems impossible to others,

and why at the age of three my youngest daughter,
Emma, painted her October pumpkins pink and placed
one in her bedroom window, one in her closet,
and closed the door. “It’s my guardian pumpkin,” she said.

One must look to words to describe the fundamental
incompatibility of hope and life, the substance and
calculus that conspire to strip away our defense,
compel us to scream “why” at a God that suggests,

in return, it is not our question to ask. (Admit, finally,
that the word “because” does not answer anything.)
You must tap your deepest self time and time again to
overcome the raging arc of life, the aches and yearnings, the

fallibilities and the grief, the anguish of a loved one borne
away by cancers, lost minds, lost hearts, lost loves, loss.
It takes courage and more to survive these things,
and I have, but I am singularly uncourageous and lack the

simplest of skills to accomplish anything but to endure.
I am a conscript of the peculiar faith that suggests God
will impose nothing that we cannot survive. But he will
do his damndest to find our particular tolerances. 

-Martin A. Bartels (draft version)