Eleven Poems

At 50, Choosing New Make-Up

The world asks, how are you, and I never know
what to say. A word, a phrase won’t do it.
Cosmetics at the counter—bottles, tubes, liquids
to cover the face. Ivory Beige. Tawny Glow. Porcelain Rose.
I could say, I’m fine, I’m Ivory Beige.

Eye makeup I gave up long ago.
The times I used to cry and the mascara
ran black, even when the label said Light
Brown, tunnels staining my cheeks.
Pain of not knowing who I was.

Shopping for skins can drive you wild.
How much does the world need to know?
When my father died I wore the first pink I ever owned.
The folds of the skirt hung in the closet like an azalea, new lips
opening among the dark flannels and tweeds.

If I could decide on one of these shades, cover
the red clusters, broken vessels of my face.
I have found my breathing spaces.
How it feels to look you straight on skin to skin.
This business of artifice

when the ache to connect drives
deeper than it ever did at twenty, the tide rushes
swifter than anyone told you it could. On my hand
veins rise, blue as water from a distance. Rivers
through the body, all that has passed and passed by.

(From Way of Whiteness, 2000)



After my father died, my mother talked of a tree
she had seen at the edge of a field in fall:
a great tree as if on fire, she said, and she wanted
the rest of her life to be like that, one blaze
before the leaves fell, before it all was gone.
Now in the entry near her front door hangs a print
of a winter tree, rounded, heavy, white with snow.

Late winter, you and I have walked this way so often.
I thought I knew what to expect, oaks dropping
their brittle leaves, pushed off by their own buds.
Juniper, scrub. Grasses bent, shadowed with mold.

There is never a way to describe the things that rise
before you. A flush of white straight ahead, a breath
lifting. We turn from the path we’d been following,
into the mud of an abandoned road, to face this scent
of blossom, these circling bees, this bursting:
an old pear, gone back to its wild, original rootstock,
blooming over its intricate branches, a perfect oval.

(From Way of Whiteness, 2000)


The Lost Book

said something about memory,
the way it slips when

you remember, liquid
between covers, a spine, and drops

into place on the shelf, there, so
you can forget it.

(First appeared in Poetry, 2003)



Hovering, the word,

a ball batted so high
the sun blots it

from sight, so far
there is no reaching

for the shape of the word,
letters scattered

till they all, a, c, h, t, c,
fall to earth, my open hand,

where I order them
onto a page, and breathe

the relief of one who
hasn’t lost the game.

(First appeared in Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, 2006)


Condensation Nuclei

Sea salt, pollen, and smoke.
Particles the air
needs to form a cloud.
A pebble in the palm.
Phrase dropped on a plate.
Your words I’ve collected
and lined up like bowls
of ash, or sand,
stared at, and wept.
Or like our lidded glass
containers: oats, wheat,
and opalescent grains
we use to knead
our bread, yeasty
loaves with raisins.
Rain, relief, the irritants
washed back to loam.
Saliva, the body’s
juices that digest
grit between our teeth.

(From Things of the Weather, 2009)


Waxing Gibbous Moon

This humped asymmetry,
as if the scissors slipped,
a segment missing in the arc.
We’re waiting for the song’s
last notes to be resolved.
Yet here beside me,
your face in profile
is still your face,
the whole of it, which
I can never grasp, even
between my hands, all at once.

(From Things of the Weather, 2009)


At the End of August

An hour of pattering
rain and though the soil’s
cracks still gape, on the roof

two fluffed woodpecker
nestlings flutter off.
The stray tabby is lapping

goat milk from the bowl.
We have emptied our luggage.
The clouds have moved

from currents beyond us,
their moisture might have
lifted from fields in Tibet.

How far will we travel
to arrive at a moment
we call home?

(From Between Frames, 2006)


High Yellow

(Ellsworth Kelly, Oil on canvas, 1960, Blanton Museum of Art)

This is it. All you need. Though nothing
resembles anything you know. It’s neither
star nor flower, this imperfect oval more
like a fat yellow cigar floating in blue so dark
and bright it couldn’t be any sky that’s ever
filled your breath. And the bottom third
of the canvas: pure green. You don’t have
to do a thing. Can’t stop the churning of your
desire to turn this high-flying ovoid into an
ear of corn or a squashed halo. This is only
about color: yellow, blue, green. But your
mind is still recalling that the first two can
make the third. Like sun and sky make grass.
You keep trying to put names on these three
shapes, though they have nothing to do with
names. Yet you can’t leave, for in the high
sky above this bright lawn, a widening sun is
about to drop the egg of itself into your lap.


Light Pink Octagon

(Richard Tuttle, 1967, Canvas dyed with Tintex, Blanton Museum of Art)

Like nobody’s skin. Or skirt, blouse.
Nobody’s flounce, neither ruffled nor scalloped, nobody’s ribboned

basket. Or bonnet, or roses. No carnations, no half-sliced roast
beside the wineglass, no ruddy

cheek of a maid shouldering wheat,
no dimpled buttocks of Venus or Bathsheba, no thundering

Jehovah-splintered sunset, no velvet-tassled curtain, no fizzy drink.
Not like skin, no veins traversing

flesh, no one begging to be touched.
I could move into this unadorned, open, plain-woven canvas,

a pastel simplicity, an unclouded fabric billowing
rugged as a mainsail uncurled,

heading out to the wide ocean
with the wind, this aerial cotton swath, unsplashed by any paint,

uncluttered by any pen or brush, this unframed shape—arresting
as a full breath.

(First appeared in The Georgia Review, 2008)


Remedial Reading

The smallest classroom in the ninth-grade school. Yellow walls, and the ceiling seemed too high. Boxes lined up in bright colors on the tables, each a different level. This class for retards? This a toony class?  The kids swaggered and straggled through the door, unwilling. To be seen here. Laminated cards, one at a time. Second-, third-grade skills for fourteen-year- olds. Mostly boys. I’d been assigned to help the reading teacher, her thick gray hair bunched and slipping along with hairpins and combs. Ruth organized field trips, took her own beat-up station wagon. Once she drove us up the coast to the great blue herons’ nesting grounds. We walked up and up until we could look straight down into the tops of the big trees. She showed us how to spot the saucers of nests resting in the branches.

I never got the kids to move beyond a level or two. Nobody stayed on task. Once I was pronouncing vowels with Lester Sims, light-skinned, freckled, a skinny little dude. O: okra, Oakland, Coke. And o: butter, supper, dove. His eyes shone. He was standing beside me. Doves, he said. We can talk about birds? Sure, I said, and told him about the finches I was raising at home in as big a cage as I could afford. Man, why didn’t you say you wanted us to talk about birds? And he was out the door. Before the bell rang for the next class he was back. I was putting cards away in their boxes, red tipped ones in the red box, brown in brown, folding the lids closed. You like pigeons? he grinned. I do, I do, I said. He unzipped his jacket. I don’t know how many wings flapped out from him, ruffled my hair and fluttered all through that yellow room, a sound only feathers can make, as Lester told me every one of their names.

(From Nothing Between Us: The Berkeley Years, 2009)


I’m Not Sure the Cherry Is the “Loveliest Of Trees”

So from the first line of the poem I’m quibbling,
and I don’t even teach this poem now
I’m pushing threescore and ten. All that counting
Housman has us busy doing, figuring
the speaker’s age, and I know in class we’d end up
focusing on the stanzas with the math. Yet
students never had trouble getting hold
of the poem’s carpe diem message: inhale
the scent of roses while you can. I’ve never seen
a flowering cherry, have never known
spring in Washington D.C. or England or
been invited to a hanami, a party to view
the blooms in Tokyo. But I knew the dogwoods
lacing my first hesitant steps, have known
white pines’ needles gleaming with
light reflected from a northern lake, and
I’ve known the palo verdes in the dusty Sonoran
desert where Rudy, my first boyfriend,
kissed me. And the olives I planted
with my former husband, shoveling down
into Phoenix hardpan. The eucalyptus
lifting their astringent scent in the Berkeley
hills where I lay in a carpet of fog-softened leaves, ecstatic
with a lover. The lemon tree by the front door
of the house where my son was born. I could say
“with rue my heart is laden” for these and all
the trees I may never see again: banyans and teak,
neem trees, cinnamon and coconut palms,
the bodhi tree—under which the Buddha sat
so still. And since I haven’t many springs
left in me—a dozen? two?—maybe,
like the woman diagnosed with terminal
cancer who traveled seven continents
compiling a life list of eight thousand birds,
I could search out all the trees I’ve never seen,
including the blossoming cherry. In California
there’s a bristlecone that’s lived for almost
five thousand years, and in Sweden, a spruce
that’s lived for close to ten. That woman’s travels
kept her cancer in remission, her doctors
were amazed. But how can I leave our own
Mexican persimmon near the drive, its peeling
layers of coppery silver bark, its branching
trunk I can’t begin to wrap my arms around.

(First appeared in New Letters, 2011)


Wendy Barker has published five collections of poetry and three chapbooks, most recently, Nothing Between Us, a novel in prose poems (Del Sol Press, 2009) and Things of the Weather (Pudding House, 2009). Other books include a selection of poems with accompanying essays, Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002) and a collection translated in collaboration with Saranindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (Braziller, 2001). She has also published a scholarly study, Lunacy of Light: Emily Dickinson and the Experience of Metaphor (Southern Illinois University Press, 1987) and co-edited (with Sandra M. Gilbert) The House is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone (Southern Illinois University Press, 1996). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Georgia Review, Southern Review and Gettysburg Review. Recipient of NEA and Rockefeller fellowships, she is Poet-in-Residence and the Pearl LeWinn Endowed Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.


  1. Thank you for giving us these wonderful poems. I especially enjoyed I’m Not Sure the Cherry, a nice reminder to stop worrying about all that we haven’t seen or done and cherish what we have. And all without being preachy. She took me back to the blooming crab-apple full of yellow finches who sang so sweetly as I enjoyed a second cup of tea with my newborn son in his car seat on the table beside me. A million cherry trees could not match this. Thank you for setting my priorities in order.

  2. “…Rivers
    through the body, all that has passed and passed by.”

    Wendy Barker could be describing her own poems. Which resonate so tenderly. I’m another new fan, and will spread the word.

  3. Thank you Alicia for bringing these poems to Persimmon, and thank you, Wendy Barker for these particular poems, the Light Pink Octagon, I’m Not Sure the Cherry as well as the beautiful Remedial Reading. Every one of her names.

  4. What extraordinary skills of observation Barker has. And it has to do with far more than what she sees– It has to do with an intellectual and emotional openness to everything around her. Was unfamiliar with her writing am most impressed. Diana Anhalt

  5. I, too, have never read Wendy Barker before, and I now feel inspired and refreshed by her poetic vision.

  6. I’ve long been a fan of Wendy’s. I’ve read some of these poems before (and heard others at readings), but each time I encounter them, I discover some new delight nestled within.

  7. Difficult, no impossible: to write poems about paintings. Well, Auden did it with “Musee des Beaux Arts” and now you’ve done it, Wendy, with “High Yellow.” Alicia is right. You do grow more beautiful with everything you experience.

  8. Thank you so much for featuring these poems – I’d never read Wendy Barker before. Now I’m a confirmed fan.

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