February 2001

Coleman Barks


Coleman Barks, born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, went to school at the University of North Carolina and the University of California, Berkeley. He taught poetry and creative writing at the University of Georgia for thirty years. After meeting Robert Bly in 1976, he began translating the 13th Century mystic, Rumi. His first publication of the Rumi work, Open Secret: Versions of Rumi, was awarded the Pushcart Writer's Choice Award by William Stafford. His Rumi translations were collected in a definitive best-selling anthology, The Essential Rumi, and re-issued in 1997. His work with Rumi was the subject of a segment in Bill Moyers' Language of Life series on PBS, and a special, Fooling with Words, aired on PBS in 1999. A selection of the Rumi translations appears in the prestigious 7th edition of the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. The father of two grown children and grandfather of three, he is now retired in Athens, Georgia.
Spring Morning    Click to hear in real audio

It's a spring morning in the 1940's when Ozella
    and my mother misunderstand each
        other. The exterminator man in his green

Orkin uniform coming up the walk, mother calls
    from the porch back to the kitchen.
        Do we have any bugs?

No'm, we used all those we had yesterday. She'd
    thought mother'd said bulbs, light
        bulbs, mother so elongated

her buuuuuhhhhs, and barely put final consonants on
    at all. Now here's the bug man with
        his metal spray gun lying

down on the brick walk to laugh. We are so ready
    to laugh in the 1940's, we get down
        on our sides to enjoy it.



Whittling    Click to hear in real audio

John Seawright's great uncle Griff Verner
    spent much of his last days whittling neck-yokes
        for his chickens to wear so

they couldn't get through the wide slat divisions of
    his yard fence. There are other possible
        solutions to this problem, but eggs have

yolks, and Griff Verner's chickens had yokes, and he
    himself had that joke-job in a bemused
        neighborhood that watched every move.

Somewhere there's a crate of Griff's chicken yokes, I hope,
    as there's a wild shoebox of vision-songs
        stashed by a poet whose name we don't know yet,

nor the beauty and depth of his soulmaking, hers. Griff's
    white pine, Rembrantian fowl-collars may
        have also served as handles to wring their

necks with when Sunday demanded. John's grandmother's
    Methodist house had only two books in it, the Holy
        Bible and Fox's Book of Martyrs. When it rained,

there wasn't much to do indoors, and on Sundays nothing, no
    games, no deck of cards, no dominoes. Of course, no
        television. I grew up in a house with no

television in the 1940's and on into the mid-50's. We were
    in education. Sometimes at night there would
        be five different people in four different

rooms reading five different books. John says once
    his mother caught Sam and him playing cards
        on the floor. She snatched up the deck and said,

"Well, you can play cards in jail." There's always chores to
    do in the methodical world, no spare time to waste or
        kill. Throw those idle gypsy two-faces

in the trash. Let them find other haphazard palms to occupy.
    John's father could carry on a side conversation with
        him while typing a sermon. John remembers how as a

child he would sit and talk with his dad and watch him do
    those two word things simul-manu-larynxactly
        together in the after-dinner Friday night office.

Griff Verner's whittling comes when you're not spry
    enough to chase chickens but take some interest
        in the public's consternation with oddness.



Silo, Spring Violets    Click to hear in real audio

By the violets in the watercress
    new grass under the slender ash
        trees by the rooted-river spidery

bankedge, I fold in with edible lavender
    butterflies, each next each in
        a wandering myth of body, and

crows. I do not know who I am,
    or ever will, who invite friends
        to see a silo of memory

whose house is an empty plot between
    an uncovered well and this other
        cylinder of poured concrete. We

go clumped together as a kind of a way
    for a while, then take our single stems
        aloof. Listening to music

in the dark I feel a great sphere of violets
    and water and grasses riding in the night between
        us and the moon. It cannot be

looked at directly; it's more elusive even than
    our fluttering stories that leave a
        silky damp in the air.



Abscission Leaf, Looking into Water    Click to hear in real audio

A night-sleeping rain, become now these
    puddle-windows where we watch
        the others' eyes in a wet field:

look how we are not dead and buried!
    The bread-push underfoot: loved ones
        lying in a spherical bed so wide and round

we stretch your left sole to my right to
    (wicker worsa) walk as each the other's path:
        waking and dream in a kiss-touch

continuum: breath-faces moving at the mirror-lips
    bahbah bahbahbah, as when I did observe
        under the glass skin: turtle moving moss

thread, a frog's one-eye wink, before school or any
    fear of the talking-knot tightening
        in my stuck throat, rather its opposite

release, what scientists call the abscission layer
    circling the stem where it lets go and
        begins fly-fall. The gingko

has an abscission leaf which when it goes, the rest
    will not be long. Her yellow
        slip slips as we turn to see

and feel the abscission words loosen. Night
    ensuing night, their resinous balsam,
        carry my slow-spilled dose,

and a long river-silence flows in the juice. A red
    blackspotted tupelo leaf and a
        yellow fivepointed sweetgum rise off

the silt floor turning their tips to touch
    the surface from the other side
        and sail. I am lying asleep in a

nightriver room strobed with boatlight sidling
    the curve, its engine throb below
        the cliff boiling the churn and mix.



Coleman Barks: Poetry
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