Poem-A-Day: Joe Barnes

About twenty years ago, I took a road trip from Houston to Los Angeles, where I was teaching for part of the year every year. I made this road trip with an old friend from college. This was before cell phones were common among young people. We caravanned across the country, each of us driving alone, and what should have taken 26-28 hours took three ridiculous days. We got detoured by dust storms shortly before leaving New Mexico and ended up deep in Arizona, a paper booklet road atlas and a highlighter in hand, nearly stranded by fatigue (his) on a reservation before finding our way back to I-10. Remind me to tell you the rest of the story sometime; it’s absurd and hilarious and surreal.

About twenty years ago, the woman who was my husband’s girlfriend before me suddenly died. He considered taking off into the west, driving until his car ran out of gas, then setting up in whatever town he’d ended up in and starting over with a new identity. I’m so grateful he didn’t.

Longer than that ago, the year I graduated from college, I realized that I didn’t have a steady full-time job lined up yet, and for the first time in my life, I had the sense that I really could go anywhere and do anything and start my real adult life in any way I wanted to. A friend asked me to move to Vancouver with her. I thought about it. Then I decided not to, and she decided not to, and she moved to Los Angeles for graduate school, and I kept my seasonal teaching job out there for a few years longer until I came home and married my husband.

Somehow it seems like road trips often create this illusion of freedom, but more often than not that sense of freedom is just a vacation from our regular life, and really? Often, that’s enough.

I cannot say why I enjoy this poem so much, but oh my goodness, it’s fun.



That morning we headed West.
We had nothing better to do.

West was as good as East
Or South or, for that matter, North.

They were all elsewhere
and that morning was one of those days –
the light brisk as a nurse,
the air calf-skin to the touch,
the breeze absently shuffling leaves
like a card sharp between marks –
when elsewhere had to be glorious, too.

Time led us shambling across
a countryside indifferent
to our incompetence with maps.

Farms and small towns
shrugged as we passed.
The big cities didn’t even notice.
Suburbs noticed but pretended not to.
Suburbs can be that way.

We were never lost.
but never found, either,
except by a sun that teased us gently west
on a trail of shadows.

We ran out of gas and fought
over whom we should blame.
We decided on fate.

We got drunk and wrestled alligators.
We lost.

We pulled up at a clapboard church,
its steeple an angle or two shy of perpendicular,
and were baptized in the blood
of the risen Christ.

One of us fell in love
with a waitress at a diner.
Her nails were bitten to the bloody quick.
Her eyes were the color of a Golden Retriever’s.
She was friendly but engaged
to a local plumbing contractor.

Somewhere along the way
our adventure became a life.

We traded clothes, names, pasts,
then traded them back.
After a while we forgot
what belonged to whom.

We climbed a cliff
and listened for time, for space,
for the slow curve of the universe
where space and time meet,
for anything but ourselves
listening on a cliff,
the uncertain earth sliding,
like memory, underfoot.

We listened so hard, so long
we ceased to hear
and drove, deaf-struck by silence,
to our motel
and its mercy of noise.

The mountains neared.
They shimmered. They shone.
They bullied the sky aside
with sharp granite shoulders.

Beyond them, we knew,
lay the beginning of sea
and the end of the West.

We prayed for bad weather:
flash floods to wash away bridges,
freak snowfalls to trap us in our car,
dust storms to blind us
into immobility.

The weather stayed fair.

We grew tender with each other,
like guilty grown-up children do
with bewildered, dying parents,
like adulterers do with spouses
they are poised to deceive.

It was the man that had fallen
in love with the waitress
with the eyes of a Golden Retriever
who saved us.

“Why not North?” he asked,
his voice thick with corn chips.

(He had gained thirty pounds
since he had been spurned
in favor of the plumbing contractor.)

So North we went.


Joe Barnes’ poetry has appeared in five anthologies – TimeSlice, The Weight of Addition, Improbable Worlds, Untameable City, and Lineup – and in journals such as Bat City Review, Measure, and Illya’s Honey. Barnes is also a playwright. He lives in Houston, Texas.






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