Friday, September 21, 2012

Kentucky Sketches

The borders between us are largely
an invention, though one can cross
from one state to the next and in
some way know the world has changed.

It is a particularly perplexing moment
when I realize that no roads end,
though one can be surprised by
sudden turns and the misplaced hayfield.

Rolling westward into Kentucky,
somewhere off of I-64, there is a
sudden vacancy in the road as a
bridge spans the most unusual

valley, a sharp and verdant V
anchored by what might be called a
river or an errant thought that drifts
across the blue hills and blue smoke

of this land. I turn off in favor of the
black post-and-board fences and
low-slung drystone walls, late-summer
flowers and tired tobacco barns.

These are farm and pasture lands,
not entirely devoid of surprise but
largely unaccustomed to it.
Even the trill of a warbler, slightly

out of season, tips the delicate balance
of slow time, as if it were embarrassed
by the momentary silence that follows;
an inappropriate laugh during a

serious lecture, the awkward applause
in the pause before a concerto is complete,
so that we are made to be aware

for an instant
of our presence.

c. 2012, Martin A. Bartels (working draft)
Part of my new collection, "Unlanguage."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


The beasts within us are much worse than
those we invent.
Reason and even prayer fail us, results from either
            being imperceptible or absent.
In the face of the incomprehensible, we
crumble and rebuild;
Camus’s irreverent stone made real.

Results themselves are our
comfortable fiction.
We finally confront the bitter fruit of
our first and only selves.


Contrary to popular belief,
perceptions are not reality,
but are more often presumptions. In the
            Bay of Fundy streams reverse their
flows in the great tidal bores,
            not without some pain. Even
the slow breath of the earth must gasp.

The bartender in her tattoos
            wears her myths in ink,
a canvas I admit I sometimes long 
            to touch and to taste.


O, Jupiter and O, Chaos, how is it I find
            ephemeral redemption
in the stray glance of a woman’s eye,
            and certainly her smile.
Make me a fool, then, this is my shame;
            I wasted a lifetime and then some
failing beauty.

We may all die for lack of an
appropriate yardstick
to measure our better selves.
            I still persist in the attempt.


There are shadows and scars on our souls.
There is no compelling evidence that
we are born with them. Sin is merely
            the first excuse. We cultivate our
children only to discover we have
            little influence and less control
over the eventual outcomes.

Left to this fearful conclusion we
            can only rely on fragile love.
Things must be precisely as they are,
            a view profoundly imponderable.


Sound does not travel in a vacuum
            so the conundrum remains:
If the sun roars in its fire and there is
            no atmosphere to carry it,
no soul there to listen, no soul there to
            burn in its fires,
does it make a sound?

We can spin on such questions
then dinner must be prepared and the
            dogs let out to run.


Gravity requires a certain weight to be felt,
even more to master its substance.
The Greeks cast gods as fickle beings, then
            killed them in starlight.
The myths we persist in maintaining are
            no less surreal, but perhaps lack the poetry.
We all die in starlight.

Dreams contain the stray calculi
of our experience,
the sum of which add up to something:
            Our first and only selves.

c. 2012, by Martin A. Bartels (working draft)
Part of my new collection, "Unlanguage"

Monday, July 16, 2012

Grey Chambered Moon

I entered your dream as you clambered onto the dappled grey,
leapt out past the thicket of oaks arranged as a forest chamber,
bare shoulders brushed by light sprung from the full withering moon.
I may not have been welcome. My distraction nearly made you fall.
“I can’t… I can’t.” This is what you said in wisdom.
My needs would have driven you off course.

It is possible I should have known this, of course.
There are too many moments written in shades of grey
and in the heat of time we sometimes lack wisdom.
These are poor excuses drafted from an old man’s chamber,
not so old, maybe, but this summer is too quickly turning to fall.
You can tell by the waning slant of the yellowed moon.

I will remind you of the things I remember: The crescent moon
of your left breast loosely exposed by a blue V-neck. The course
of our random and unexpected language of attraction. My fall
from grace, wishing you would join me. The staggering grey
smoke of fireworks, us cast below as residents of a gas chamber.
“I love this moment,” we said, wondering at our mutual lack of wisdom.

One day, you told me, you will visit Argentina’s City of Wisdom,
the park full of gods where you will pull down your pants and moon
them. You mentioned then you weren’t wearing underwear, your chamber
of secrets momentarily exposed in my imagination, a crash course
in erotic resistance, your voice the brushstrokes of Payne’s grey
that captured and condemned Eve moments before the Fall.

There is no fall from grace or perhaps we always fall,
that terrifying dream in which we have no wings, no wisdom
to fly. We float anyway, and in this dream each of our hairs turn grey.
Before this I had never noticed the similarity between age and the moon.
The shades of the moon laugh at youth’s chambered
innocence, for all that, its light may still keep us on course.

In the end, I apologize. There is a peculiar chamber
of the heart reserved for remorse, the place from which blood falls
when pierced by love or lust, the place of abandon or recourse,
the place from which we choose to ignore wisdom
and rely instead upon hope—that impossible, scathing moon
that drenches us in a constant monochromatic palette of grey.

Love must be a chambered bullet, not silver but grey
and dark so that to fall in such is not like moonlight,
but an urgent trajectory whose course denies all wisdom.

c. 2012, by Martin A. Bartels (working draft)
Part of my new collection, "Unlanguage."
Please see author's note under "comments."

Friday, June 29, 2012


It is late spring and too warm by far for the
season, so that blue vapors settle in the
mystic Northwoods pines, bring to mind  
ancient gods and those who invented them.

The waters of the timeless lake unfold
from your skin, so that the fracture of
sudden sunlight as you emerge
drapes you in furious diamonds.

Water sculpts us and absorbs us,
christens and absolves us, but that may
not be enough; it is only water after all.

Vast clouds approach and the thunder
rolls out in a way that I have never heard:
As the storm nears there is a constant
insistent rumble. It goes on so for 30 minutes

without pause. The worst of the rain skirts us,
we learn later, still soaked in the memory of a
drenching downpour, its sound the
enlightened ohm that empties all thoughts.

At night, the loons defy language in their
absurd haunting calls, intone wood-deep
chants from which certain spells might be
cast when mixed with native ingredients.

I am an old witch,
haggard in her tumbled ways,
soaking sumac and drying herbs
against the backdrop of barking wolves.

There are more elements than we can count.
Earth, air, fire, and water are all
one and the same. This is the only secret.

c. 2012, by Martin A. Bartels (working draft)
Part of my new collection, "Unlanguage"

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Au Pairs

The three young women gathered
at the green park bench,
each lovely in her own way, in the
ways that women are beautiful.
Seated at the bench beside them I

couldn’t help but overhear their
European accents, that they’d never
met before. You are German, too?
the newcomer asked of one.
No, French, said the taller of the

three. From Montendre. And you?
—I am from Italy but I speak German, too.
And then the blonde, the German,
said something in her native tongue.
They all laughed at this delightful

little secret. I smiled in happy envy
at the fleeting instance of being a
foreigner in my own country.
Their charges, the children, I mean,
careened across the playground,

oblivious to this moment and its
import, if any might be ascribed.
As practiced as mothers, perhaps
more patiently, even, the au pairs
corralled the children with

gentle calls and admonitions.
In this small park that held the 
world, the women shared at least
two languages, their youth, the
responsibility of caring for

wealthy people’s children, and 
the mixed joy of a new country.
Maybe a certain worldliness, too,
that I—a well-traveled stranger—
can only resurrect from memory,

sitting instead now on a
park bench as my daughter
climbs the playground set,
imagining herself a great explorer
in distant, undiscovered lands.

c. 2012, Martin A. Bartels (working draft)
Part of my new collection, “Unlanguage.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Week in Blessings

Apologies to author Ashley Ream, from whom I stole the title for this entry and may again. I hope she will forgive me if I list her first among the many people I've met (blogospherically speaking), and been inspired by since committing to my writing. You can read her blog, follow her on Twitter, and for goodness' sake, buy her book "Losing Clementine." I loved it!

When I hit a dead-end with some poem or another earlier this week, I randomly reached out to a regular reader of my work who happens to live "across the pond." Thanks to my new friend HyperCRYPTICal. I am thrilled and humbled to have (many) readers in the UK, as well as Brazil, India, Germany, France, and Russia. I refuse to believe any of these are spiders, spammers or other nefarious Internet thingies.

I met a fellow poet (Marshall), an amazing artist (Jenn), a great young photographer (Thomas), and a well-connected journalist (Joe) this week -- in each case the conversation was refreshing and the mutual affirmation inspiring. I gotta get out more. 

I tinkered with the design of my blog page, just because I can. Let me know whatcha think.

Friday, May 25, 2012


How long does it take to learn the nuances of your love,
the DNA of her breath and the way clouds cast shadows
over her eyes, so that in the grey light of day she is still
something of night,
something of dreams
that you recall for many years, but only in fragments.

It must take decades, perhaps, to learn such nuances and
so few of us, it seems, have the patience to endure, to
tolerate our own surprise at the smallest of discoveries and 
accept such tiny moments
as the progress of our love.
A simple half-step and there you are.

It takes a lifetime to grasp the simple, longer still to know yourself.

Artists still flock to the Amalfi Coast to capture the
incomprehensible Mediterranean light. Perched on the
fragmented, chaotic cliffs one constantly hedges against
the persistent lure of
tumbling downward, seaward,
ending in the transcendental need to climb back up.

One feels the downward pull, too, of the falls at
Niagara, the existential suction of so much water that
you are left breathless in the perpetual vacuum. Even
there one might observe the
rebellious mist that lifts upward,
miniscule tears of preposterous hope.

Drop your baggage here and you will rise up, too.

Language will eventually fail to provide the words necessary to
describe everything. Left to our silences we will momentarily
accept the world for everything it is and fails to be. Some might
confuse such insight with
enlightenment, forgetting that
at least part of bliss is walking on coals.

On storm-laden days you might see a ray of sunlight that pierces
dark clouds, or filters through spring’s pale leaves at sunset or dawn.
Such rays make even the dying chaff and dirt of forest floors
something to worship.
Something on which to kneel,
bury your fingers, look skyward, cleansed by that singular light.

Let the one who reminds you of sunlight be sunlight.

c. 2012, by Martin A. Bartels (working draft)
Part of my new collection, “Unlanguage.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Shelf Life

I'm changing up a bit--I'll continue to publish poems-in-progress on a more or less weekly basis, but will also post regular essays on whatever comes to mind. I hope you enjoy! Feel free to share and comment.

It seems terribly self-conscious when a writer writes about writing. Self-indulgent, too, maybe. But the craft and process demand a kind of discipline that fills pages with words, so that even when you’re not working on the novel or short story or poem, you’re writing. Something has to fill the page. Your fingers keep typing even when you’re not at a computer.

I recently purged a vast quantity of books, first at a big yard sale, then through donations. Over the years I had collected perhaps 1,500 books, not all great, but most of them quite good and memorable. For a long time I had thought of them as friends, but then I came to realize they—along with my even more vast collection of music CDs—represented my graduate studies. I earned my masters degree with Jim Harrison and Tim Robbins, then my PhD from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Richard Brautigan. Bach, Gorecki, Gershwin, Monk, and hundreds of more contemporary names were more than the soundtrack; they were integral to my studies.

Getting rid of the books and CDs—an act that people (with little understanding of who I am or what a writer does) often recommended—came with a certain amount of pain and melancholy. Unexpectedly, it also came with a sense of liberation, like without so many words filling my library I was free to write my own.

Of course there were quite a few that I kept, will always keep no matter how many times I have to pack them in boxes, move them, then re-organize them on shelves in some contrived life order like John Cusack’s character in “Hi-Fidelity.”

What did I keep? All of the above writers, of course, and my meager but important collection of poets. Any Nobel or Pulitzer winners I’d collected (Gao Xingjian’s “One Man’s Bible” is brilliant). A few oddities: seminal works of science fiction, Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Carson McCullers’ “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” Oh, and of course the five remaining copies of my own out-of-print book, published in the ‘90s.

There’s some space on my shelves and it’s been a while since I visited a bookstore.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Photo Album

In the end it may be that others
perceive us only as snapshots,

points in time stilled by the
blink of an eye, the frame of memory.

Even close friends and family are
vulnerable to singular interpretations,

no fault of their own; we reveal who we are
in the light by which we prefer to be seen.

The personality test (I wonder how I might
fail at it) insists I select from  

myriad adjectives to describe myself.
Gregarious, introverted, insecure, confident,

ambitious. There was no checkbox for
“all of the above at different times;

occasionally, all at once,” because we must be
absolute and definable to be swallowed.

It is possible I am simply advocating for nuance,
a relatively unspectacular proposition.

In Saint Lucia, the travel writer whose
            name I don’t recall, boarded the yellow bus

bound for the top of Soufriere. The sad and
            reticent volcano spews the stench of sulfur and

boiling springs. The stones around them ashen,
 white as prehistoric bones. One is forced to

ponder then when history began.            
We retreated to the dilapidated

row of shops where local women sold
colorful batik, then ditched the island’s PR

lieutenants to opt for bottomless plates of
conch and callaloo (made from the dense green leaf

called elephant ear), supplemented by thoughtful
doses of rum. Looking for a story, we might

write ourselves. Our glasses never emptied. 
I chased a shy lizard from her bed before

kissing her quietly and without need. We
smiled and I left her room. There is something

gratifying about loving a woman without desire,
as if we have momentarily conquered the

inevitable appetite of our species.
To carry a barracuda from boat to pot

you must pierce thumb and forefinger through
each eye socket. Natives of the island of

Ambergris Caye, Belize make a starchy soup from
vegetables, onions, herbs and the bony fish,

satisfying paired with a Beliken or Guinness.
Lazy, we paid $200 US to fish the shallow waters

inside the reef, where sea life boasts improbable colors.
In the nature of our world living things defy the

best intentions of artists and photographers.
Indigo bunting, queen angelfish, yellowtail damselfish,

tulips in spring; Monet came closest, perhaps, in
Water Lilies but was tormented by color, a sad tradeoff.

Snorkeling at night the water condenses the
diving light to a perfect cone. Underwater, the

speed of light is reduced to a fraction of itself.
In front of you is nothing but the dark sea.

Beside you, barracuda flash in silver-lit streaks
so close you can feel the current of their

passage. This is as close as I will ever be to the
lead goose in a V-formation. The water is silent

except for breath through this hollow tube.
Separated from the normal corridors of

human existence I am untethered and yet
profoundly centered, adrift but

self-propelled knowing only that
destiny must surely be contained in

darkness. It would be years before the
scent of coconut oil failed to remind me of

Lynn, a smell so erotic – the oil itself so sensual –
that my skin long remembered the buttery

contact with hers that followed weekend afternoons
at the pool and one particularly decadent

vacation in the Keys. Visiting her ex-boyfriend, we
smoked from a bail of pot he had discovered

floating off the beach; I learned how to clean
lobster and to keep to myself when personal

histories are relived. Fortunately such errors in
judgment are rarely fatal. I left her only weeks

after I had come home to find her sitting in the
kitchen dropping steak knives from

table height onto her foot in a sadistic game of
mumblety-peg. The fresh bottle of frozen Stoli’s was

two-thirds gone, her eyes cast in the glaze of
someone who is ultimately lost. There is no way

to count the population of people 
who are repulsed by their lovers.

Keep passing the open windows, she said,
the tragedy lost on me until she explained:

When you want to kill yourself you have to
keep passing the open windows. I left because I

like open windows, the attraction being not height but
distance and the cool breeze of foreign moments.

c. 2012, by Martin A. Bartels (working draft)
Part of my new collection, "Unlanguage."

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Unbearable Weight of Nothing

I thought I had many years to
prepare for your major questions:

Where do babies come from?
What is the meaning of life?
Dad, may I use the car tonight?

But at four years old you asked this:

Are adults scared of anything?

And I had no answer.

At the middle school talent show, the
young girl stood on stage,
quiet and shyly poised. When the
emcee announced her song, we gasped.
“If I Die Young,” she said, by
The Band Perry, the
poignant ache of lyrics we all knew
sung by a girl too young to appreciate
our fears. We applauded loudly when
she finished, raised up by her a cappella
rendition, relieved to think, finally,
it was only a song.

Are adults scared of anything?

The house stood empty as the
day we first moved in, sunlight
pouring through bare windows, the
scattered dust of boxes and memories
tangible as our shared fear. With nothing but
our possessions in hand, the future was
exposed as truly unknowable as it is;
our greatest vulnerability revealed as the
chance merely to influence probabilities,
weak at that. Stripped down,
bare as the empty house,
this is all we are, we thought,
and it was an unexpected relief.

Adults are scared of almost anything, I thought.

Our childhood fears evolve from imagined
beasts and abandonment anxieties
to the usual cast of unbearable realities.
At first fear is imagined, then
learned; the deaths of loved ones,
sordid acts of violence, ultimately
reducible to simply loss, plain loss.
Buddha intoned that life is suffering,
that we might overcome such pain by
enlightened detachment, but for all his
later incarnations we remain
simple peasants of peculiar glory.

Are adults scared of anything?
Yes, string bean, we are.
But we endure because of love.

c. 2012, by Martin A. Bartels (working draft)
part of my new collection, “Unlanguage”

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Unbearable Weight of Nothing, Part 1

I thought I had many years to

prepare for your major questions:

Where do babies come from?

What is the meaning of life?

Dad, may I use the car tonight?

But at four years old you asked this:

Are adults scared of anything?

And I had no answer. 

c. 2012, by Martin A. Bartels
part of my new collection, "Unlanguage"

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

First Dance

There are one hundred and twelve seams
along the sidewalk on our block, plus
twenty eight cracks of varying length and width

that you tiptoe around, careful not to let loose
your spiderweb grasp of my hand.

Music plays in my mind sometimes,
random and unbidden,
Charlie Parker or Coltrane,

Mendelssohn or a rare acoustic set by the
Yeah Yeah Yeahs. On a bicycle these

same seams bump out the rhythm to
“Maps,” or “Bessie’s Blues.” Then I imagine
your wedding reception, our first dance,

you are twirling in our spiderweb grasp,
and I will be careful not to let go again.

c. 2012, by Martin A. Bartels (working draft)
Part of my new collection, "Unlanguage" 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

At the End of the Day

(Author's note: This poem was first published at, as winner of her 5th anniversary poetry contest. Thanks, Nina! And congratulations on 5 great years supporting poetry and poets. —MAB)

A simple place to write with a friendly pub nearby.
Land to grow vegetables and herbs for our evening stew.

A landscape of pasture lands, a river nearby for fish,
the cheap cuts of steer or pig, a plucked chicken

(save the parts for stock). A cast iron pan. Good wine.
A quiet place to read where the land stretches its legs,

reminds us that we are humbled eternally by grace and
beauty. To know these moments is our only ambition.

At the end of the day you come home to what you are.
The corporate ladder is climbed primarily to patch walls and

change light bulbs. The serene young blonde at the corner bar
has aspirations. She will either live them or not, both results

equally poignant. The herons defend their twilight, blue-grey
mystics in a perpetual stance of expectation, until their wings

explode in the urgent energy of exploration. Mythic dances
unfold unobserved. These are our first angels. The moon in
daylight pretends to be a cloud. Nimbus or cumulus, I’m unsure.
In daylight the moon is a won ton, cloud-swallowing minister,

the monk who chops wood before and after enlightenment.
Wood chips on the grill smoke white cloud riffs against the sky.

The clouds themselves are thin fish bones; sky soup. The breeze
moves through us at the same pace as clouds. The moon

remains still. The moon is a skull in this light, not threatening but
ponderous. Strange dreams flow out of it that remind you of the

long poem by Harrison. The moon in daylight said this to me:
You are the changing line in the I Ching symbol that suggests

you will be a great man one day. I am buckled by the notion,
having no such pretensions. The old man who told me we are

born with nothing has it wrong. We come into this world
with everything. We leave with everything.

c. 2012, by Martin A. Bartels.
Part of my new collection, Unlanguage

Friday, March 2, 2012

French Onion Soup

Light a candle and sip French
wine so as not to draw tears

Slice onions, shallots and 
leeks thin, patient
so as not to cut fingers

Salt and pepper to balance the
sweet times of life,
Sugar for the heavy times

Dark broth

Crusty bread for your soul and

Cheese for the pleasure, let it
melt inside you

Serve warm in bowls with love.

—from Imagined Recipes from my Grandmother’s Cookbook

c. 2012, Martin A. Bartels,
part of my new collection, ‘Unlanguage’

Friday, February 17, 2012

watch rain turn to snow

watch rain turn to snow

as flakes fall they struggle for their

ephemeral dominance

as the temperature turns just so

they emerge in a slow fall of self-creation

quiet seeps from the ground

settles within our own cold atmospheres

clouds pause

c. 2012, Martin A. Bartels (working draft)
part of my new collection, "Unlanguage."

Digital Memory

I’m sorry now
I deleted the
photograph of you.
It wasn’t that good,
quite blurry, actually.

I needed the space.

c. 2012, Martin A. Bartels (working draft)
from my new collection, "Unlanguage"