John Wall Barger

Distemper Song; My Birthday—One Muggy Saturday in Manhattan—August, 1977: John Wall Barger

Distemper Song

I fall into the ditch
a new chill
my mother licking
licking licking

A bull drifts into our clearing
my brothers throw up
a wall of yipping
the bull breaks the wall

The bull a mountain sniffing me
snorting thunder

My brothers their several noses
sniffing me
where the bull stood
my brothers upon me
dancing playing
my body a part of their game

In the almost dark
we sleep all in a mound

The night stitched
with great streams of yipping
gushing from the moon
gushing between mountains
ogres of yipping frenzies of yipping

I lie in the ditch
grey with diesel fumes
and yipping

A deer dribbles a blood-trail beside us
no yipping
so it was a dream

I’m woken by a human baby yipping
no it is me crying
I who was the beautiful child
in my caramel fur

My brothers sniff me
laugh on the high road
amid donkeys

I do not see my brothers again

My mother in the bushes
in a pile
egg of the hidden land
grass growing through her leg
a slow song of grass

Wondrous wind fearsome many-headed wind
and squirrels dance upon me
and wind
the breath of an animal but which

The night a tide runs out but never runs in

I try to walk to my mother
as she swirls in the air above me

It is all right
I lick the deathless dew
morning nectar
under the sun a wheel rolling of itself

The birds sing and dance
upon the objects of the land

And the silence sniffs me with a roaring

My Birthday—One Muggy Saturday in Manhattan—August, 1977

Aunts and aunts and aunts
In suffocating heat
Family guests in robin’s egg blue suits
Old silent movie era hierarchs
And tiny glass figurines
Dancing en pointe
And ear-of-wheat crocheted doilies

In my mother’s family’s flat
Where she grew up

Me in my blue coveralls
Caged in by the quaint asparagus-green
French village wallpaper

I want to sink my face
In chocolate cake, two dark moons
My parents restrain me
They are long-hairs, hippies
On either side
One hand on each of my shoulders

I lean in, inhaling, boy blowfish

Thing is, my grandparents don’t like my Dad
My awkward Dad
Blowing smoke in their faces at dinner
Lacking boundaries
Giving the wrong signals

The air is full of sounds
And Vienna Fingers and frail teacups

So the family does not babysit me
This pains my mother
She who glows beside me
(Almost too much, the glowing!)
In her lovely white hippy pilgrim dress
Squeezing my shoulder

Sailing by
A fruit-bearing rat in a robin’s egg blue suit

But I dig my Dad
He puts his forehead on mine
Makes googly-eyes

The face of my great-grandmother
Slow, so slow
Through the murky water of balloons

Dad catches my eye across rooms like these
Grinning his big grin
As if to say
My boy you are above all these bastards

The family is wary of him
Even wary of my mother
She who has not yet learned
To be wary of anything

He rides me on the tank
Of his Triumph

Why can’t I blow out the candles
Why why

My mother whispers in my ear

He jumps over the campfire rain-streaked
Singing out of key

With two forefingers of his left hand
Dad urges my shoulder
Which I understand

John Wall Barger's poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Rattle, The Awl, The Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His poem, Smog Mother, was co-winner of the Malahat Review’s 2017 Long Poem Prize. His fourth book, The Mean Game (Palimpsest Press, 2019), is now in its second print run. He lives in Philadelphia and teaches a poetry workshop at The University of the Arts.