Today's poetry for today's world

Judith Barrington


Judith Barrington’s most recent full-length poetry book is The Conversation (Salmon Press, 2015).  Barrington has published three other poetry collections: Horses and the Human Soul (Story Line Press, 2004), History and Geography, and Trying to Be an Honest Woman, and two chapbooks : Postcards from the Bottom of the Sea and Lost Lands.  Among her awards is the Gregory O' Donoghue International Poetry Prize for 2013.  She is also the author of Lifesaving; A Memoir (winner of the Lambda Book Award and runner up for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the memoir) and the best selling Writing the Memoir: From Truth to ArtBarrington teaches in the USA, Britain, and Spain.  She is on the faculty of the University of Alaska, Anchorage’s low-residency MFA program, where she teaches literary memoir.




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                           . . . And they, since they

     Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

                  —ROBERT FROST, “Out, Out—”


It’s not that I blame them: how often have I too turned

back to my living life, leaving the dead to hover

around in dreams or pop into sight as a back view

walking with a familiar gait towards the park?

Just because I’m dead now, I can hardly ask them

to hang out nearby, lost for language,

lost for gesture, lingering just to show willing.


It’s not even as if I have somewhere to go:

I’ve told them often enough: the end is the end,

so off you go to affairs of state or of the heart,

to money worries, doctors’ offices, children

who threaten to turn out all wrong—or so you say.

Anyway, what would we do if you stuck around here?

It’s too late now for that conversation we never had—


though it’s interesting to discover that I still wish

I’d found a way to get it going.   The end may be

the end, though some piece of me, not quite finished,

has kept the words that belong in that talk

stuffed inside my mouth which is firmly closed

like my eyes, though my lids are no longer

weighted with coins—bus fare into the next world


which, of course, doesn’t exist.  But what if a bus

should come along or a rowboat to cross the river

or even a cruising yellow cab?  Would I get on board—

curious to find out where they’re headed, take a tour

like on that cold, cold bus in Granada that stops

at Lorca’s family home where on August 18 they came

to arrest the poet.  A day later he was dead, going


nowhere except in history, no transport required.




“The Conversation” was the winner of the 2013 Gregory O’Donoghue Prize chosen by Thomas McCarthy and presented at the Cork Spring Poetry Festival.











Crows startle the clouds

with grievances never resolved

and warnings blurted into thin air.


Once in a while, the cries of all those who tried to survive

pour from the funnels of their throats.

No wonder we never really listen.


Like most animals, crows tell the truth:

working hard to penetrate our tiny tubular ears,

they cackle on telephone lines while we watch TV.


Once I did listen to a crow, but even when I had heard

his whole story, there was nothing I could do.

Next, I thought, I’d have to listen to squirrels and coyotes.


I like to think I deal with my share of rotten truths

but I couldn’t bear to kneel down in damp grass

and listen to the hedgehog or the mole.




First published in Poetry London

Published in Horses and the Human Soul, Story Line Press, 2004

(Finalist for The Oregon Book Award)

Featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac











No longer tumbled by currents as when

long ago they were lodgers in frail bodies,

now they drift free of the flesh that was sucked

and nibbled from bones and the blood that swirled

away, its quick red streaking the deeps.


Souls mingle in the democracy of weed.

Passing through great barnacled bulkheads,

once-passengers, transparent without furs or jewels,

glide through the shiver that marks the presence

of stoker or convict, or the drunken oilman


who one night staggered to the edge of the spider-legged rig

and dreaming of his girlfriend—unusually tender

in his mind at that dizzy moment—plunged through cans

and plastic trash, into the arms of another.

Welcome, said the souls, though his ears heard nothing.


No longer sailors nor slaves, still they remember

the struck bell piercing sleep, the darkness

below decks where rats splashed in the bilges,

the wide-eyed newborn who flew over the deck rail

saved from the plantation by her mother's arm.


Oceans are thick with them: submariners floating

free of their vaults and pilots whose planes dropped

from the sky like giant guillemots but failed to surface

with a catch of fish.  The careless were snatched

by sneaker waves, the joyful by cruising sharks


who dispatched them with a lunge and spat out

their splintered surf boards.  Some are surprised

to find themselves here, having thought they'd ascend

to the heaven of upper airs or deep star space.  But

these are the heavens, say the souls: the heavens below.




"Souls Underwater" was short listed for The Times/Arvon Foundation International Poetry Competition, 2004, and was published in He Drew Down Blue from the Sky to Make a River (The Arvon International Poetry Competition Anthology).  It also appeared in Postcard from the Bottom of the Sea, a chapbook.










                           It is only since the invention of a technology powerful

                                 enough to map the deep seabed that the finding of

           names has become a pressing issue.

                                          – James Hamilton-Paterson: The Great Deep    



From Strauss in the north to Mendelssohn

in the south, they compose their two-hundred-mile

chromatic scale across the Fracture Zone,

half steps rising towards green light

then plunging four miles down to the abyssal plain.


The climber who wants to try Mount Mozart

(slightly taller than Fuji though nowhere near

as pretty) must leave the high sea, begin her long

descent past creatures that stare with bulging eyes

and flick their fins as they sidle into the dark.


When her feet land on the summit she wants to sing

so, humming a well-loved aria from Figaro

she sets out con brio to climb to the mountain's base.

Somewhere off to her left, The Bach Ridge joins

in counterpoint while elsewhere Mount Beethoven frowns.


Silent now, she's listening hard for the song

of the earth's crust, that oscillation recorded

by seismograms, vibrating on one single note—

the world itself humming cantabile

through an ancient, cracked, tectonic throat.




Published in the winter, 2005, issue of Fugue and in Postcard from the Bottom of the Sea, a chapbook, published by The Eighth Mountain Press, finalist for the 2008 Oregon Book Award







Writer's Tip: My writing advice has to do with joy.  So often I hear writers who are just starting out on the journey worrying about rejection or writer’s block or, heaven help us, depression, alcoholism, or any of the other highly mythologized aspects of the so-called writer’s life.  You are unlikely to get rich from writing, so why deal with those nasty things, even if they are less prevalent than you think?  The only good reason to spend the majority of your time stringing words together is that it brings absolute joy into your life for ten minutes of three hours while you are transported into the land of language.




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