the rail stop at massaic poems by Don Barkin

picture of Don Barkin
Photo by Eve Barkin  

Philip Levine has written that Don Barkin’s work shows “wonderful skill.” The Rail Stop at Wassaic bears out that assessment. Like the poet’s previous book, Houses, it is “both domestic and fierce, accessible and resonant, including many poems that have the audacity to follow traditional patterns of rhyme and meter.” Barkin’s earlier volume, That Dark Lake, was a finalist for the Connecticut Book Award, presented under the aegis of the Library of Congress. About that book, 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 at 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.’”
  the rail stop at massaic cover image
  Photograph by jimjOwill

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 Book of the Year award. Houses, New and Selected Poems, was published by Antrim House in 2017. Two chapbooks, The Caretakers and The Persistent, were published by Finishing Line Press. He has twice been awarded artist grants by the State of Connecticut. He is a former newspaper reporter and was educated at Harvard and Cambridge Universities. He has taught writing at Yale, Wesleyan, and Connecticut College. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut with his wife, Maggie, and his daughter, Eve.

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ISBN 978-1-943826-73-5
First Edition, 2020
86 pages
This book is available at all bookstores
including Amazon.


Copyright © 2020 by Don Barkin


A Tennis Court in Winter


The nets are gone – even
the posts that hold them are gone.
Someone is making it plain,
tennis season is done.
The faint lines on the clay
are like ghosts in old plays.
A man with a racquet and balls
would stand like a rusted pump.
while boys breezed in on bikes    
making their big figure-eights.
No one need shoo them away.
Only God in his froth
foresaw a topspin lob
in this desert place.
Of course, it was just for fun.
Still it thickened the summer months
with a shuttling of white shorts,
and made the dead air ponk.
But the season for tennis is done.

The Beautiful Promise of Snow

The blessing of the falling snow
was like a ladder let down from Heaven.
We’d hankered for that cloudy castle,
left off of all the modern maps
with Hades and the great whales
to break us of our buccaneering.

Now it falls and falls and falls –
a knitted scrim (but bright, not dim).
While into dusk the blinkered buses
scuffle toward their puddled stalls,
and we pad home in brilliant slippers
to an afternoon before the fire . . .
At dawn it lies like drear decor,
the wreckage of a splendid dream.
Yet for a spell this inclination,
so long suppressed, to lift our eyes,
seemed right as rain, as cows lie down,
and icons roll their eyes toward Heaven.

An Acrobat Looks Back


The mind is the wild rider
on the patient circus pony
which, mindless of the rhinestones,
the pirouettes and stunts,
canters round and round
until it turns to glue,
for ponies come and go.

And the children are no wiser.
But Gramps, who as a boy
cheered the rider standing
triumphant in the saddle
through a sun-shower of applause,
feels that he’s begun
to be weary of such fun.
And taking to his bed,
his lumpy clod of bed,
he rides the wild clouds
in his spangled suit of stars
where the Big Top flies apart
like a flapping canvas sail.
For the mind is a wild rider.

What We Look at Hard

At dawn the street looked like a barren shore
the tide had tugged the sea from like a sheet.
I paused before the shut face of a door
that breathed, There never was a real street.

I’d heard this whisper since I knew my name,
and wondered whether everybody knew,
and if a child would be held to blame
for blurting out, “The world – it isn’t true!”

But now it didn’t bother me a bit
a wooden look was all the nod I’d get
(though plenty to upend my native wit).
Plus who was there to tell? And what? And yet.

Cemeteries Are Schools


The stones seem sad, will always seem
as sad as weary pale-faced moons,
where they look out on columned cars
as blind as Breughel’s blind buffoons.

Yet time is on their side. Each car
will finally find itself behind
a hearse much like a Mobius strip,
which school kids take to be a kind

of trick, not thirsting for such tropes,
yet count their hours in sighs and moans
in class then on the bus-ride home
parading past those knowing stones.


Passing Out at the Hospital


It was foolish of me to swoon
outside the room where your wife
was going to die soon
and end your natural life.

But she was like my wife –
big-hearted, a hugger and teaser.
Like me you mined your life
for indignities to please her.

I should have had breakfast before
I came to say my goodbyes,
and like her couldn’t stand anymore,
and heard singing and closed my eyes.

The Historic House on the Hill


When he looked up from his farmer’s field
waving with wheat, the snath of his scythe
slick with sweat, the house on the hill

dazzled his mind like a white flame –
light sent with a will from Heaven
and welcomed with a coat of white paint.

And so, although the joists groaned
and mice ran in the attic and cellar,
when spring arrived he scraped and repainted.

It still winks from its hill wordlessly
through this burnt wilderness of words.
God hurls down His will in waves,

and we gather it on our pale backs
and warmed to order, hack at the scrabble.

The Show


The curtain rises on a raucous scene
of homecoming, so far as he can glean.
Yet settling in the dark he can’t ignore
the feeling he’s been in this seat before.

In bed that morning opening his eyes
another kind of curtain seemed to rise
on the scene he liked to call his life –
his house, his work, his children, and his wife,

and everything seemed written like a part
in which you know the things you’ll say by heart
with frozen frown or grin, though not quite why.
He let his eyes fall shut and heaved a sigh.

But since this stage is brilliantly lit,
and it’s so dark, he lifts his eyes to it.

The Rail-Stop at Wassaic


The last train leaves, and no one comes home to the house,
a darkened farm-house without cars
that sits by itself at the foot of a wooded ridge,
a sofa on the porch, and a clanging flagpole.
Behind it, a ragged lawn wanders up
to a black maw that beckons you into the woods

Dusk draws on, and the hill grows rich with shadows.
Head up the path, already black at your feet,
and soon you’ll be lost, unlooked for and unseen,
and finally you’ll have found it, the source of the stream
of loneliness that flows over you at night in bed.
Now, freeze beneath a low bough like a mole.

If you stay there forever you’ll never be more alone,
in a place the rain can fall on without thought.


A Day at the Beach


Behind that grassy swell slept the sea.
But first the burning beach. He shucked his shoes
and, sobbing like a raw recruit, shot free
of his parents’ power to coddle and confuse.

The sparkling vasty white-peaked sea
vanished at its distant rim like magic.
He squinted at a blur, which could be
the coast of France or fog, which was tragic,

and hurled himself into the surf to drown
but failed and groped his way back toward the sun.
Then mooned that mothering sun and dove back down.
Back on the beach, they’d ask if he’d had fun.