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)