Houses poems by Don Barkin

picture of Don Barkin
Photograph by Maggie Barkin  

Philip Levine has written that Don Barkin’s work shows “wonderful skill.” This New & Selected more than bears out that assessment. Houses is both domestic and fierce, accessible and resonant, including many poems that have the audacity to follow traditional patterns of rhyme and meter. About Barkin’s earlier book of poems, That Dark Lake, Margaret Gibson wrote, “Don Barkin’s poems are memorable, unsettling, and welcome. They offer us ‘an ancient shadowed ache’ and a canny clarity; they offer straightforward honesty and deft, surprising turns of insight and image. That Dark Lake is a book that can touch the heart and evoke wry recognition in the same moment.” Donald Brown, writing in The New Haven Advocate, commented that “. . . there is a sense of mastery in the lines themselves, of getting the upper hand on one’s own dark side by thinking of all ‘that made you suddenly quietly glad / for what you’ll only just have had.’ ”
  Houses cover image
  Painting by Peter Van Dyck

Don Barkin has published poems in Poetry, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, the North American Review, Harvard Magazine, The Louisville Review, Commonweal, and other journals. A full-length collection of his poems, That Dark Lake, published by Antrim House in 2009, was a finalist for the Connecticut Center for the Book’s poetry award. His two chapbooks, The Caretakers and The Persistent, have been published by Finishing Line Press, and he has twice been awarded artist grants by the State of Connecticut. A former newspaper reporter, he was educated at Harvard and Cambridge Universities. He has taught writing at Yale, Wesleyan, and Connecticut College, and now teaches school near New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Maggie, and his daughter, Eve.

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ISBN 978-1-943826-22-3

First Edition 2017

6" x 9" paperback, 88 pages

This book can be ordered from all bookstores, including Amazon.



Copyright © 2017 by Don Barkin



Given gravity, it is only right
that the houses hunched along the road
seem substantive and unconcerned.
Yet their great weight distorts the air,
as the castle in the fish’s bowl
makes the fish seem ill at ease,
unsuited to its situation.

The soul if it is a point,
a tiny point adrift within,
can not answer their harrumph
nor penetrate their shingled bulk
to coats hung in their mudrooms.
The passing man is himself a bowl,
and his soul a fish that hovers there.

He feels it drifting through his skull,
a blinking thing with things to say
if only it could find its tongue,
as sunrooms drawl of ottomans
and concrete steps with wrought-iron rails
say all there is to say about
coming in and going out.

In darkened dens, glowing bowls
sit silently on polished tops
while ashy flakes come drifting down.
So the soul is fed on flakes of wonder –
the passing man senses it
rise open-mouthed and then dart down
to storm around its quavering castle.


In the Medical Building

In the end he just clomped down
flights of fire-stairs
like pounding down a trail
in the shade of trees.
The thudding of his boots
was his heart out of his chest.

Never again the theatrical
sigh of the elevator
with its misted silver doors
parting in the middle
on a glossy bronze plaque
and a feathered arrow west.

Just his clumsy thud
on the cloudy gray concrete.
Then through the mirrored lobby
like a man passing through Heaven
to scrape ice-cream from a cup
and walk with her survivors.


Men Spend Their Days Indoors like Fish

Depressives love the colors of
the linoleum – bad hamburger,
the blue of a harbor by Monet,
and halvah. Nor do the windows here

admit wind. The building is abuzz,
being regional and detail-driven.
The flagpole out front is at half-mast
for the soldiers and such. Its rigging chinks.

It is a building, and it has its reasons.
Though soon swung balls will bring it down.
On a far-off hard-drive a parking garage

slouches this way. Its flagpole will clang.


On the Thruway

Struggling up the long hill,
you spot them at the crest.
They left us once and now they will
rejoin us without rest.

Surely this is Kingdom Come
where we were always going,
even if these dead are dumb
or can’t admit to knowing.

But where you’d hit the shining skies
the future flattens out –
and then your look of wild surmise
resumes its thruway pout.

You feel like a child and sigh,
embarrassed to pretend
that dead men stand against the sky

then silently descend.

To a Teacher

First, do no harm, they warn all new physicians.
But it’s harder than they think,
and discovering they’re death as diagnosticians,
some linger at the sink.

Teachers too. For though she’s seventeen,
that girl still chews her hair,
and while she turned her nose up like a queen,
your scolding drew a tear.

Still, teaching texts are careful not to use
the word that like a charm
(not “skill” or “grip” or “a talent to amuse”)
can steer you clear of harm,

whatever clever lesson plans you make
based on the latest laws
of pedagogy. It’s “love” for Heaven’s sake

that gives your whip-hand pause.


The Life

He’d stop the clock when she came in the room –
her grin that flicked the switch of every lamp
and poked the fire driving out the damp
and made the faded wall-paper flowers bloom

and made him feel a keenness in his heart
and think he must be handsome after all.
His trick of stopping time was just to stall –
before their talk of kids and chores could start

he’d turn back to his book and frown or sigh
so all the light bulbs flickered and the room
was cast half-back into the gloom
her coming had dispelled. While she stood by,

he’d grunt and jab the hearth until a spark
reared up to make her smile in the dark.

The Ice Storm

A freezing rain has glazed the snow
and littered it with shards of trees.
The limbs that haven’t snapped hang low,
barely lifting in the breeze.
Our neighbor and his nine-year-old
go by in boots and neither speaks.
The sun must have gotten cold
to paint that orange on their cheeks

Sitting in this living room
with music and a good fire,
the whispering of my wife’s broom
on the kitchen floor, the thumping dryer
in the cellar, and our daughter dressing dolls,
I watch the flames until I see
the windows darken a degree,
and icicles run down these walls.


“Well, on that bridge he watched the river run
through stony London sleeping in the sun.
He glideth at his own sweet will,
he wrote, as though the Thames had time to kill,
or was a young lad running off to sea,
reminding Wordsworth he was young and free.”
“Did you always want to teach?” a tall girl sighs,
and all the wind that puffed my sails dies.

“I never did. I’m not sure why I’m here.
When you start out, you do things on a dare –
to test your strength, and then to pay the rent,
as you guys go to school because you’re sent.
Though did you ever wonder how it is
the earth and moon come close and never kiss,
but praise the sun while trading doubtful looks?
That’s why we’re here . . . Page 18 in your books.”