Tony Barnstone


My approach to the sonnet is best understood by reading my “Manifesto on the Contemporary Sonnet” at the Cortland Review. I will say that for me one of the pleasures of writing in form is that it allows for a certain cleverness and wit that writing free verse has a tendency to mute. I often go back to Shakespeare’s occasional use of rhyme in his blank verse plays. For example, in Hamlet, Queen Gertrude asks Hamlet, “cast thy nighted colour off,” asks him to stop moping around and mourning the death of his father, and asks him why, if “all that lives must seems to so particular with thee?” Hamlet responds:

               Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'
               'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
               Nor customary suits of solemn black,
               Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
               No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
               Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
               Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
               That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
               For they are actions that a man might play:
               But I have that within which passeth show;
               These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Shakespeare creates a great rhetorical breath in that long sentence, listing all the forms and shows of grief, black clothes, forced sighs, rivering tears, downcast face, and so on, asserting that these exterior manifestations of grief might “seem,” but that he has true grief inside, is not merely wearing the clothing of sorrow. This blank verse monologue is very much like a sonnet, the way it builds up an argument, and then turns it at the word “But,” and the way that it ends with a rhymed couplet. Shakespeare will often end his unrhymed monologues with a rhyming couplet as a way of summing them up in one pithy statement. Free verse has the advantage of being easily able to tap into tones, attitudes, and vernaculars that are harder to achieve with formal verse. Free verse can be better at capturing images and it has the advantage of surprise—one never knows how long or short the poem is going to be until it finds its length organically. But formal verse has it all over free verse when it comes to wit. Though much of my formal verse attempts to adapt free verse tones, attitudes, vernacular diction, clarity of image, and elements of surprise to the sonnet form, wit is foremost in my mind. Especially in the final line or lines of the poem, I wish to write something that jolts the mind and imagination like a good joke, something that resonates in memory like a song you can’t get out of your head.






Concerning a Bag of Potato Chips

The pretty girl is sulking in the car.
She wants what she can't get, a bag of chips
the other children get to eat. "No fair!"
she yells, but mother taps her tummy, hips
and butt and says, "You don't want these to grow
forever outward, do you?" So she stalks
off to the car and sulks. I watch the glow
of boatlights on the waves while Roman talks
into his cell in Greek down by the beach.
The clean air washes us. I want to share
this with you but you're far off from this peach
that makes all other peaches pale, this pear
yoghurt. I want what I can't get. No chips
for me. No life with my name on your lips.


Concerning a Bath

When you are very old and beautiful,
and, soaking in the bath, look down upon
the slender form in which you lived, and full
with memory think of the lovers gone,
will you remember me in these last days,
a harried, weakened man, pathetic, lost
because there is no joy inside your gaze
when you see me? I broke before you tossed
me in the trash, it’s true. Before the bath
turns cold, won’t you recall me strong in loving
you, as a man made whole by you, forgiving
my faults? Please do. You loved me, then you stopped,
but we were great once. Great. Then pain, then wrath.
Oh, well. Remember me the way you must.


Concerning the Great Rift Valley

And so I went to Africa. I was
running away from my heart. Forty-five,
alone again, but still a bit alive.
I came to Africa again because
I had no home at home. And so I drove
into the rift, the great green valley where
the heart of Africa struggled to tear
itself in two, then calmed. Too much in love
to stay inside my life, I came to see
the great heart, strained and buckled but still whole
(though with a scar where salt lakes fizz, a hole
where yellow sulphur spits a magma sea).
I came ten thousand miles to gaze at it,
a heart that tore and strained but didn't split.


Concerning Birding at Lake Baringo

I watch as the goliath heron spreads
great wings and wades into the water, shut
the camera off after its shutter reads
the world, the bird, the lake, in focus---but
I have no clarity because you kept
your heart a secret, lied to me
for months and finally flew off and slept
with him. I watched the child and cat and he
climbed onto you. Inside the lens, I find
the world is coded with precision, things
are sunlit sharp. I watch. The heron flies.
But where's the clarity inside my mind?
My eyes confuse your smile, our years, dark wings.
I walk from room to room, believing lies.


Concerning Ghosts

You're ghosting. I am haunted. But the wire
fence rusting by the cemetery does
not symbolize our busted love. Red fire
that eats the metal is just rust.
Because you ghost through everything, a white mule shades
beneath a leaning tree, her large eyes gaze
at me (passing phenomenon that wades
the mountain grass with just two legs) and blaze
one question: Does that mean something to me?
No, she decides, and bends her head to eat.
Phenomena are empty; emptiness
is a phenomenon. The mule is free
to eat the simple grass. I eat defeat
and starve. Without you, ghost, this world means less.


Concerning Malaria Dreams

You're naked, sitting at the desk. I come
up from behind, caress your clavicle
and spread lotion on your breasts. Like some
white ghost you turn to me, kiss me with full
lips lipsticked bright bright red and gaze at me
the way you used to do, as if the most
amazing thing were in your sight. To be
that to you once again. That would be, ghost,
worth fever, sorrow, shakes, worth the disease.
It's just a needle prick, some small blood drained
and then it's in you, shivers, strange clear dreams
in which you look at me amused, at ease,
and nakedly in lust, in which you're pained
with joy and there's no cure (or so it seems).


Concerning Lazarus at the Taverna

Flesh gobbets, bits of gristle, red mess left
about the bone (I’ve twice died and twice lived
again, but how to be, and what, bereft,
that is the crux) A yellow cat derived
from Egypt, sand cat with great yellow eyes
observes the flesh (These days I’m in the cave
of weeping, lizards whisk the walls, black flies
stinging like thought---I brush them off, behave
the way I think a human should, my lips
shape words, scrape smiles, rasp laughs) The yellow cat
knows flesh will rain down from the heavens, tips
her head and waits, but I think back to that
time-eaten time with you and famine trips
the switch of grief (Why can’t I be a cat?)


Concerning Terms

A thinking person doesn’t lightly state
“Her love is dead” when other words express
the medical condition. Understate:
say “moribund,” or that “she loves you less.”
“Cadaver” is the term for a dead corpse,
but don’t say “The cadaver has been moved
to the morgue.” Try to let the lover’s hopes
down lightly; say “There’s life till death is proved.”
Then later, when the lover paces, crazing
others in the waiting room, chest too tight,
and hyperventilating, wild eyes gazing
at the white floor, “Her love expired last night”
is a good phrase. Now leave for your next call.
Try not to think all love is terminal. 





Tony Barnstone is Professor of English at Whittier College and has a Masters in English and Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English Literature from UC Berkeley. His books of poems include The Golem of Los Angeles (Red Hen Press, winner, Benjamin Saltman Award, 2007). Sad Jazz: Sonnets (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005) and Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone (University Press of Florida, 1998) in addition to the chapbook Naked Magic. His other books include Chinese Erotic Poetry (Everyman, 2007); The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry; Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry; Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei; The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters; and the textbooks Literatures of Asia, Africa and Latin America, Literatures of Asia, and Literatures of the Middle East. He is the recipient of many national poetry prizes and of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council.