Born in Summerfield, LeFlore County, Oklahoma, Jim Barnes is
of Choctaw-Welsh descent. In the 1950s, after high school, he migrated to
Oregon, where he worked for ten years as a lumberjack. He returned to his home
state to take a B. A. at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. Later, he
earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of
Arkansas. He has taught American and French languages and literatures, as well
as world literature in translation, at Truman State University since 1970.
In 1978, two years before the publication of his first book, he was awarded a
National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. Since 1980, he has
published eight books of poetry, two of poetry in translation, one of criticism
analyzing the structure of works by Thomas Mann and Malcolm Lowry, and an
autobiography. In 1980 his translation from the German of Dagmar Nick's Summons
and Sign won the Translation Prize from The Translation Center (New York).
In 1990 he received a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio (Italy) Residency Fellowship.
In 2003 he enjoyed another Bellagio Fellowship. His 1992 book of poetry, The
Sawdust War (Univ. of Illinois Press), won the Oklahoma Book Award in Poetry.
In 1993-94 he held a Senior Fulbright Fellowship in Switzerland (University of
Lausanne). The City of Munich (Germany) awarded him a two-month Translation
Residency at Villa Walberta in 1995 to continue translating poems by the Munich
poet Dagmar Nick. From January through May 1996 he held a Camargo Foundation
Fellowship to Cassis, France, to continue work on a volume of poetry, Paris
(Univ. of Illinois Press, 1997), and on an autobiography, On Native Ground:
Memoirs and Impressions (Univ. of Oklahoma Press), which won an American Book
Award for 1998. He was awarded a second Camargo Foundation Fellowship for 2001.
For three months in 1998 and three months in 2000, he was Guest Writer at
Akademie Schloss Solitude, in Stuttgart, Germany. In 1998 he published his
translation of Dagmar Nick's Numbered Days with New Odyssey Press.
His most recent book of poetry is On a Wing of the Sun (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2001).
His individual poems and short stories have appeared in many magazines in the
United States and abroad, including Poetry, The American Scholar, Poetry Wales,
The Nation, Kenyon Review, New Letters, and Sewanee Review. He has given over
130 readings of his work in the U.S., France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, The
Czech Republic, Japan, and Korea. He is presently Writer-in-Residence and
Professor of Comparative Literature at Truman State University, where he also
edits The Chariton Review, an international journal of poetry, fiction, essays,
"Barnes is a masterful poet, a most worthy voice for his generation."—Samuel Maio
"His poems are a singing in the rain which he knows falls on us all but which, in spite of its chilling touch, also gives life to the
earth we must wander over and disappear into."—Brian Bedard
"It is a deep new pleasure to come on a poet with the imaginative boldness of Jim Barnes."—James Dickey
Seems ages on the hill above the rocky point
I have kept my eyes on the horizon where sky
drops to sea. No sign of any ship I do not
recognize, just the ragtag wornout fishing fleet
about to sink. No single sail grabbing the wind
and fifty men at oars to tell us you are back.
This is no Ithaka now you would own up to,
your old wife mad, your queer son gone, your dog
years dead. The old men gathered here like the food
and wine, but do not give a hoot about the place.
You might as well have gone down in the fishy sea:
this is no Ithaka you would want to rule. Still we
hope for your long return, the foolish old friends of
the foolish king who went away to war for fear
of losing what we have lost anyway, although
you, somewhere landbound or adrift on the deep, still
may dream of coming back to stony Ithaka,
to a faithful wife and infant son. Wherever
you are, I send you these heavy words on a wind
that has treated us all badly: there is little
use for you to come back home old and mortified.
Ithaka is not the Ithaka it was. For god's
sake, be strong. We have grown even older hoping.
Perhaps you have found another Ithaka elsewhere
in the wide world, a soft and welcome country that
nourishes you in a way we never can again.
I wish you well, but I must keep on hoping that
you will come back again. You could teach us a way
at least to cope with the thing that has befallen
us. The tourist's shops and the garish touring boats
prosper, but they are in the hands of foreigners.
The breeding cattle prized by Philoitius bankers
in Pylos hold for the debts Penelope incurred.
The suitors had no staying power when the booze
ran out. No one manned the presses nor tended vines.
Pirates from Samos got the last of goats and sheep
when we tried to take the herds across to Argive
lands. Hardly any of us are left who give a damn
about the state. I am here every day, though hope
runs thin. I know you will return sometime. It is
no Ithaka to brag about. Hope you will bring
our salvation in some form. Yellow gold would help
and medicine that would somehow cure all the pain
of mind and body. We are ill in Ithaka.
Published in The North American Review
Heading East Out of Rock Springs
for Andrew Grossbardt, long gone
On a high plateau where the earth rounds off
the edge of nothing and the sky pours down
like hail so heavy that the pickup squats
on its springs and groans toward the horizon,
you think of Andy, all those years long gone.
What had he thought when he left Missoula
and headed toward a millennium of doubt
he called poetry?—his own old Ford fooling
itself under the hood and gasping out
of the long valleys then turning south
onto the plains. Then those years of Missouri,
camped on a side street in Kirksville, among
the detritus of sojourners, the misery
of travelers haunting him like a song
and something solid growing daily wrong
inside his head. You remember Andy's hands
if you remember right: the way they shook
like aspen leaves, always in flux and
pale. Past Red Desert you begin to look
for signs that mean trails end or roads fork.
The land grows abstract as your horoscope.
What you read once as bright now reads dim
in the falling light. His fine-boned poems lope
like deer on the living language plains and seem
to fade to haze, are all that's left of him.
Sundown. An owl heads for Cheyenne. The pickup
drones toward the dark. You hardly knew the hills
then, though you recognized the thirst and the cup
and watched him drink at the roiling source until
he knew the strength of word and the word could kill.
Between Boot Hill and the shopping mall, you park
the truck under hanging light. The road's been long
and there's long to come, Andy. You can't face dark
turns to Dis or Denver without sleep: no song
worth the risk nor the risk worth this time going.
Published in Quarterly West (Fall 2000)
Feria de Paques, Arles 1996
Sitting where Scott and Zelda sat
and their Provençal dog, you lean
into other shadows captured
on the stone tiers of the arena.
The day grays in Arles, sundown
still hours away and the corrida
yet to come. You feel the presence
of known ghosts and hear somewhere at
the back of the wind a low keen,
slow and full of sorrow, buried
under the years of verbena
and lavender. You hear the town
coming to the late corrida
along the one street they will dance
in late tonight after the fat
paella has been eaten and the mean
drunks subdued. No one has hurried
through this day. Still it's more than a
day you see so many of come round
in Provence. The stone corridor
spills its spangled light, the prance
of prelude has begun. The hats
of matadors lifted between
the cheers and salutes, the gloried
Easter afternoon blossoms in a
blaze of mimosa and crimson crowned
with omnipotent gold. Toreadors
bow to Pablo at the wooden fence
and he raises the right hand that
is stained from paint and nicotine.
The faint figure of Françoise, worried
by applause and sand and splintered
against light, rides out. The noise pounds
the sky. You think of Florida
and Key West, Hemingway drunk since
hearing the news of Scott's death,
and of Apollinaire crazy with pain
and throwing out the marks that words
stumbled on. What is the center
of this life if not the sound
of ending? The flow of the corrida
corrupts the sand, and it begins.
Published in Colorado Review (Spring/Summer 1999)
Deputy Finds Dean's Tombstone on Highway
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 18 July 1998
Over forty years ago, I saw you
in my mirror mornings before the slow
days dawned. Working the hootowl shift miles
above Bohemia and in love with smiles
anyone gave, I was you to the core,
looked like you even then. Hung my hands in
pockets lightly exactly the way you did,
and wore the light blue pants.
Our names the same
signaled something I tried my best to grasp.
Maybe I have it now. But for you, Jimmy,
I would have remained in the north country
and never have known the freedom of road
and will. I was a slow rebel, double
for you in the smoky taverns of Oregon
where lost women and mournful men spilled their
lives on Saturday nights.
You taught me how
to desire and what the desiring is for:
departure. The setting out must go on
and on. So I think of this these decades
late after reading the Reuters release.
In July there are shivers in Fairmount.
Someone's life somewhere is about to change,
the tailgate down and the bed empty and scarred.
Your name, our name, Jimbo, flat on the road
sliding west with traffic: that's the way it
ought to always be this far from Eden
or South Bend.
This far from the lumbering
towns or lots full of OICs, I see you
still, the standing shadow in every ditch
or curve someone sometime did not make
in a momentary reach for misguided
glory. The pickup reaches home toward
midnight. The two men, in late middle age,
lean their arms on the rim of the empty bed
and gaze into the nothing they have carried
to the sanctuary of the deep Indiana fields.
Published in The American Scholar (Spring 1999)
The First Feria of the Third Millennium, Arles Easter Monday
At the barrera Anthony Quinn jeers Monsieur
le President. The boy from Arles should have
at least one ear, so sure he was with the kill.
The crowd waves white scarves, claps in unison,
until the ear is granted and the matador
bows. Pablo, just above the judges, leans
slightly forward, nods to the protégé
of an old comrade who once killed six bulls seul
on a hot Paques afternoon. But Pablo is dead
these many years, and Tony much too old
to give a damn and sit through wind and rain
and cold to see six bulls die and no one
gored. Yet the boy from Arles with his hour
on the home sand and two good bulls was brave
enough to summon spirits of those whose will
defined their art. Fitzgerald catches the sun
for a moment with his little dog, much more
at ease here than in Antibes. Zelda finds
the image and snaps the shutter on the way
they were. The crowd rises and shakes the cruel
rain off its hide, wants only now to be fed
the tubs of paella steaming on the mall.
The arena grows empty. Figures in the rain
hold their shape, then slowly dissolve on stone,
ghosts that refuse to leave this place where
the same thing goes on forever, waves
of time repeating waves. What was here still
is here. Image never fully fades. One
photo taken eighty years ago, more
or less, evokes a clear sense of the time
Scott and Zelda invented lives in a way
that holds the elegance and grace of style.
Between bull and matador there is no dread
of the act of finality. So too the fall
of fictive lives. Having guts to remain
steadfast is no sin you have to atone
for: Hemingway called it grace under pressure.
César Rincon faced six bulls years ago, gave
Arles an opening day they will recall until
the last posters blur. Pablo would have done
the corrida on copper plates before
the moon went down behind the marshy rim
of the Camargue. Today was such a day
as that, and the evocation just as real.
The boy from Arles was steadfast in his need,
from the smooth work of cape to the grace of kill.
The flowing day repeats itself in your mind
and what you think is past is never gone.
Upcoming in Sewanee Review