The Little Review (littlereview) wrote,
The Little Review

Poem for Sunday

Elegy with a Mute Bell
By Brian Barker


This is what I've chosen
to remember her by. Not her cabinets
of chipped china, or shelves of porcelain

bric-a-brac, or boxes of empty snuff tins,
but a small bell. The carved handle painted
green, and where the green has given way

to the pinch of fingertips, worn by oil
and salt, the wood shines, rubbed
to a sheen of blackened honey.

Its mouth, once a polished silver, is now
mottled with rust, the deep umber
of a softening pear, and when I lift it

only the lip-scrape and hollow clink
of the clapperless tongue: a corroded wire clip
plumbing the bell's vaulted dark.


Imagine what she must have thought
when she picked it up during the night
to beckon the nurse, expecting the perfect

high-toned pitch to shimmer over the sound
of the rain dripping from the eaves.
What she must have thought when the bell

let go of its lead bob, and it fell
for the first time since being drop forged,
hitting the pine floor and rolling --

not the slow, measured roll of the marbles
she played as a girl, but syncopated, skipping,
wobbled by the soldered eyelet --

into a black abyss of safety pins and dust.
What she must have thought when she caught
herself still waving the mute bell like a wand

and knew she was also disappearing, her body
receding into itself, slipping behind her clavicle,
her rib cage, into unseen fissures of light.


It rests on my windowsill, unrung,
yet upright in its silence. I'm certain
if I lifted it, its absence would be marked

on the sill, a black ring, an imprint in the paint.
A bell in form? Yes, but something else,
memory's icon or monument. Or a prop

on a stage, the backdrop this: late afternoon,
the sun's gold delirium against the glass,
the tiger lilies bowing their orange-cowled heads;

the trellis brocaded with roses, and skirting the fence,
a bramble of blackberries, the ripe fruit glistening
like the small things we lose everyday

made palpable again. Starlings swoop from the maple,
snatch the berries, return to their claver and chaos.
They appear iridescent, fat, the berries hardening

in their bellies like ballast. Without warning,
the conclave rises, veers, scatters. They go silent,
grow dark as ink, and before disappearing,

tumble in failed shapes across the sky.


Barker writes in Poet's Choice that this poem had its genesis in a workshop taught by former Poet's Choice columnist Edward Hirsch. "The assignment was to write a poem that addressed the notion of form -- poetic or other -- in some way. At the time, I had been thinking about the relationship between form and function, between form and the essence of a thing. What happens when something loses its form? Does it cease to exist? Does it continue on as a figment of its former self, or does it become something else entirely?" The abstract questions "are grounded in this poem in one object: a clapperless bell that I took as a keepsake from my great-grandmother's house after her death. At least, I thought the questions were grounded in the rereading it, I can't help but think of it as a statement about poetry itself. Form in the world breaks down, but poetry pushes back against this transience of being. It makes palpable again everything we lose to the unyielding forces of time."

We spent the day in Baltimore, where there were so many things we wanted to do that we only got to half of them (meaning we will have to go back in a couple of weeks, heh). We went first to the Maryland Science Center, which was having one of its Backyard Science events -- this means not only that there was sun art and solar cooking going on outside, not to mention bubble-blowing and stomp rockets, but that there were guests in the museum, particularly Bat Encounters and Mountain Mushers Sled Dogs. The latter showed a short video of their dogs at work in Denali National Park from before they were adopted by them and brought to Montana, talked about animal training and safety, then brought out three big friendly dogs and let people take turns petting them. The former did several shows with live bats -- which some people hid from, leaving their kids by the stage and going to sit on the steps -- and talked about environmental issues affecting bats and how they affect humans.

A big brown bat named Radar in the hand of Rob Mies at the Maryland Science Center. Though these bats live locally, Radar was injured as a baby and can't survive in the wild.

This straw-colored fruit bat enjoyed being held up against Mies while he talked about the species and walked around among the audience so they could see a bat up close.

The golden fruit bat has a face and fur like a bear's.

The large Malayan flying fox showed off her wings...

...and hung from Mies' arm while he walked through the crowd showing her to people. None of his bats can fly due to injuries.

This is Harry with Su, a six-year-old Alaskan Malamute who works as an ambassador and therapy dog in schools when she's not pulling a sled.

The darker dog is Sorrel, an Alaskan husky who appears on the cover of Sled Dogs of Denali National Park from his days as a professional sled dog in the park...

...and white dog is Pixie, the kennel leader, who retired after an injury at Denali National Park. Now these dogs enjoy watching cartoons when they're not working.

When we left the science center after seeing the Chinasaurs exhibit -- the largest touring collection of Chinese dinosaur fossils, plus some animatronic dinosaurs -- we went to the S.S. John W. Brown, which was built in Baltimore in 1942 as one of the Liberty ships that brought troops, arms, and supplies from the U.S. to the Atlantic and Pacific theaters where the Second World War was being fought. The John W. Brown is one of two surviving fully operational Liberty ships out of more than 2500; Baltimore remains its home port, but this weekend it's in the Inner Harbor right in front of the Harborplace pavilions and open for visitors. The crew quarters, flying and battle bridges, steam engine, mess, and several weapons have been restored and can be visited, as well as exhibits and displays on life aboard the ships during and after the war.

Evening TV yet again was Due South -- "Some Like It Red," "White Men Can't Jump to Conclusions," and "All the Queen's Horses" -- I don't see how it can get better that those three. Fraser and I are in complete agreement that pantyhose were invented by a sadist, and he looks unnervingly like Lucy Lawless in drag (which perhaps is why, though I usually find men in drag completely unattractive, I found him unnervingly hot). Okay, and after seeing that episode I must admit that I think the people who think Ray V is not slashable must be covering their eyes, holding their ears and singing lalalala. I am a bit shocked that the producers could convince Isaiah Thomas to put on a Bulls cap (I loved that Fraser had no idea who he was, and he went along with that), and I must have a recording of the Mounties singing, though Margaret Thatcher is so badly written and there is so much mind-boggling gendered crap that if there is any further romantic development between her and Fraser, I will be very unhappy. (Don't spoil me.)

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