THIS TIME WE WIN

By James W Barnes

 

“Jimmy.” I stirred so she knew I was awake.

“Last night…A man shot Bobby Kennedy.”

“Did he…is he dead?”…”Yes. He’s dead, honey.”

My mother’s hushed words, 7:30 in the morning,

June 7, 1968. I lay frozen by her greeting

as she quietly left my room to let me cry.

The news reached into my gut and lodged

there with an acrid ache I had never known.

I’d lived to see his brother’s murder, King’s

abrupt silencing by gunfire, and now Bobby’s—

the candidate my friends and I campaigned for,

the man who was fresh air in the bedlam bog

of racial segregation, gun violence and wars.

Though we were only 17 years old, Bobby was

our hope to rise from the hell of self-destruction

and to fashion a future without war,

without racism, intolerance and fear.

 

We didn’t know then what I know now—

the war was with our own humanity.

The war was waged against the earth.

We stood with adolescent nerve for peace,

refuting society’s gilded promises while in hidden

bunkers built of ideology, men constructed

their weapons of biological warfare against which

we had no defence and no hope of success.

 

And now Bobby was dead, and so died our hope.

Two years later, as I graduated from high school,

I determined to conscientiously object

should my number be drawn at art school,

while across the country campuses had become

battlefields of protest—the young refused to comply:

“Hell no, we won’t go” rose from countless commons,

but the bunkered men had a different slogan

and sent in troops to enforce its fearful rhythm.

 

Four unarmed students lay dead at Kent State,

killed by national guardsmen, their protectors,

killed by the machine: the students’ rage.

What was the use now? Viet Nam ended

with Nixon’s victory. Peace was a political game.

Where now, our rainbow; where now, the flowers?

Where was the free love, the daring risk of youth?

It seems the good die young…as we did.

We stepped into an America without heart,

carving our lives like ruts in a clay road.

Universities, careers, news of new wars,

nuclear races and ecosystem destruction.

We fought still with verbal protest,

wrote impotent letters as age tempered our

verve and life became the norm of compliance.

 

Bobby was dead, and Martin and John,

and those Kent State students, and our

drafted friends  left silenced in the Killing Fields.

We turned around and they were gone.

The wake behind us knew our despondency;

we became the radical generation who’d lost,

baby boomers bound to bow and conform.

Yet the millennium turned as does the tide.

A new day, a new dawn rose as my poet’s dance

chronicled my personal history of disconnection.

And as myth and legend would have it,

one simple and droning day at my teacher’s desk,

my seasoned sonnet met Youth’s brisk ballad.

 

We met as the sun was setting on my teaching life,

and rising on my poet’s path, warming metaphors.

Your searching eyes met mine from an ancient time,

Your multifaceted mirror reflected my forgotten courage.

We were not strangers, we were a bridge from

my tired optimism to your certain conviction,

my cynical acceptance to your revolution of love.

That was the moment. We were one—youth and age,

60s and 21st century becoming the new story

whose plot had been lost in the maze of deception.

 

I woke this moment with a new conviction—

Bobby was alive, and Martin’s dream revived:

the songs broke free and retrieved the story—

the same words I sang at 16 and 17 I sang again:

The times they are a-changin’, the bunkered

men’s order was rapidly fadin’; now

I was the father lending the hand to a revolution

centered from the inside and changing the world.

When we shared breath, metaphor and meaning

when you swam into your pain and rose restored,

the bridge was completed and a new way found—

cross generational rap, the Earth’s new sound

echoing from the mountains, hallowing the ground.

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THE WARRIOR AND THE BEAR

He woke in half-light to a silent spring morning. He tried to recall the sounds of the birdsong the year before but the memory was too distant. He rose, stretched and raised his arms to each direction in turn. He knew what he had to do before the day’s end if his tribe were to survive.

The young warrior climbed atop a granite outcropping that rose above the stunted pines and he looked into the dark valley below. At one time this valley had been full of the light movement of tribes gathering to trade and their fires burned with wisps of white smoke. Now only reddened smoke rose from the blackened landscape where once green meadows teemed with insects and birds filled the surrounding trees. Now this valley was the gathering place of the Heart Eaters and all his people had disappeared into the hills, afraid they would lose their hearts or the hearts of their children to the insatiable appetite of these hungry intruders.

`             The sun struck his face and he moved into the dense forest of twisted pines toward the dry river bed below where the sun was shrouded in red haze. Strapped across his bare chest hung two long, narrow drums and a flute. He was not a weaponed warrior, but a song warrior, chosen to train because of his clarion voice and unparalleled sense of rhythm and time. His raven hair hung to his waist like a stallion’s mane, uncut since birth. His feet were shoeless and braided bracelets adorned his wrists and ankles. His eyes were obsidian mirrors.

“You will be alone, son, but you have all you need to succeed. It is time for you to break free from our guidance and be who you were born to be. It is time for your spirit to break free.”

His father’s words rang like a nighthawk’s call—Break free! Though his memory was clouded, he could remember when he was six years old at the time of the last peaceful gathering. That was the year the Heart Eaters arrived. People thought at first they were there to trade, but instead, they talked to tribespeople and told them stories of dark, ominous futures and that they should be frightened of what was coming. Fear permeated the encampment like a wildfire and soon all the traders were gone and the Heart Eaters remained consuming the remains of the tribespeople’s supplies, and their hearts if any remained. The child warrior had wept through the night lamenting what had been lost and what might never be regained. He knew he must act.

Eleven years of learning, training and inner strengthening passed and the young warrior announced his plan to his family. He knew he had the only possible solution to call the people back and to dispel the scourge in the valley of peace. And to make the river flow again. What he did not know was if he would live to fulfil his plan.

“You will not be alone,” his mother told him. “You will meet a companion and together you will succeed.” She touched his strong cheek with her calloused hand.

“I will succeed,” he said aloud as he pushed through charred underbrush and into an open smouldering plain before him. He smelled the putrid stench of the Heart Eaters’ encampment.

He stood silent before the empty plain and he felt eyes on him. He wheeled quickly around. Behind him a great brown bear rose on its hind legs sniffing the air. The warrior froze, his heart fighting for escape, but he resisted and stood his ground. He then slowly lifted his flute to his lips and began to play softly.

The bear swayed from side to side and released a low growl sending a chill up the warrior’s neck, but he played on. Fingering his flute with one hand, he began to tap a rhythm on one of his drums and the bear dropped to all fours, stepping toward the musician in time with the music. As the bear drew nearer the young warrior saw patterns etched into the bruin’s legs, back and face. There were repeated designs of swirls and fern frond coils and what appeared to be a lettering from some ancient language. He did not stop playing as the bear sniffed the warrior’s body from his feet to his head, then sitting back on his haunches, the bear’s growls turned to a rhythmic voice of song.

The warrior lowered his flute and stepped toward the bear carefully, respectfully until he could feel the heat from the animal’s massive body. He was considered tall among his people but he was eye to eye with the bear in his rested posture.

The warrior instinctively reached his hands toward the bear’s face and placed one hand on either side of his broad skull. The bear waited, then the young warrior placed his forehead against the bear’s and he could feel and smell his breath—the odor of the earth and the forest.

Then he joined the bear’s song, surprisingly mimicking the language he did not know. The song warrior knew the value of voices in harmony when he sang with his mother and father in tribal circles, but the resonance he felt in his chest and head from their harmonics on this burnt plain was a vibration he’d never felt before. The trees on the mountains above them seemed to tremble in the sound.

Their eyes were fixed in each other’s, their heads still touching.  The song warrior understood the bear’s thoughts—not in words but in the language etched on his body. He heard of connection and clear water, of birdsong and people’s hearts restored to their owners, of meadows no longer blackened by deceptive chatter but blossoming with truthful exchange. He stepped back, looked toward the smoking encampment and then returned his attention to his new companion.

“Come with me, Bear,” the song warrior said, holding his hand out to the bear who slowly shifted back to all fours and then rose on his hind legs again to his full height. The warrior felt his heart race again as he looked up to meet the bear’s gaze. He reached his wide paw outward and touched the warrior’s outstretched hand. The size of his claws matched the young warrior’s full hand length. Then he lowered himself on all fours and turned toward the Heart Eaters’ encampment as he began singing in his bruin baritone a song of the green earth. The young warrior fell in step behind the bear and joined in the song, tapping a rhythm on both drums as he walked, stepping in time until soon both of them were dancing their way into the encampment. The etchings on the bear’s fur seemed to gleam in different colours as he moved.

“Visitors!” the shout rang out from the ragged hoard who sat and lay about the burning rings that crackled in front of the decaying huts they called their homes. The first thing the young warrior noticed as they sighted the outer ring of the Heart Eater’s village was the lack of children. Men and women far above his years sat around incessantly talking as they ate from sticks roasted on their fires. The Bear stopped several running paces from the encampment and all heads turned. The warrior and the bear stood silent, their eyes gazing toward a central fire ring where what seemed like elders sat talking loudly.

“Bear heart! Bear heart—and human too,” announced a tall elderly man near the central fire.  “Welcome to our fire. Come share our feast and our talk.” The old man rose as the hoard stealthily encircled the two intruders. The young warrior rested his hand on the bear’s head whose shoulder now was pressed against him. He could feel the animal’s rumbling voice like distant thunder and the warrior echoed the deep resonance with his own soft tone as the elder approached.

“You have a friend of the animal kingdom,” the man said. “You must be wise and respected where you come from. Why did you not bring all your people here to trade with us?”

“You have driven the people from this valley where once we traded as free agents. Free to respect the land, the clean water, this soil that you have stripped,” the warrior said, trying to withhold his mounting anger.

“We use the undersoil to burn our fires, to cook our meat and to warm ourselves. Our technological knowledge has taught us this. The soil is our given resource and your people tried to deny us access to it.” The man took steps closer but the young warrior raised his hand to stop him. The bear’s rumbling grew more audible as many of the Heart Eaters gathered closer behind the pair.

“The soil is a living being that feeds the trees’ roots and gives life to the plants and grasses that once thrived in this rich valley. You have depleted this land of all that once lived here and your poisonous habits are infecting the entire landscape—and it’s spreading.” The song warrior lifted his drum. “I have not come here to negotiate or listen to your falsities. The land is dying; the people are hiding in the hills with little to eat. You must go–or change.”

The old man stepped closer. “Go? You tell us to go? And how will you drive us away—you have no weapon, no army, only this tattooed bear beside you.”

“I need no weapon, Heart-Eater. I have my music.”

“Ha! Your music is the sound of emptiness.” The Heart Eaters repeated his derisive laughter from behind them. “Only one thing will change here, young man—your story; for this is where it ends and your heart knows it. Your heart belongs to us now.” The warrior felt his heart begin to beat so rapidly he was sure it would echo from the hills. He heard the bear speaking to him deeply beneath his loud heart—“Wait till they move in, wait till they begin to breathe down your neck, then—we rise.”

Break free.

The elder pulled a long-bladed tool from his waist band as other Heart Eaters did the same. The song warrior knew this was the crucial moment when his family and other survivors escaped the grasp of the hungry ones, while others lost their hearts, and their lives. The day the burning began and the land crippled beneath their greedy mouths.

The breath! It fell on his neck with the heaviness of death.

The tattooed bear rose on his hind legs, spread out his forearms and released a deafening bellow that bounced from the high hills above them and sent the Heart Eaters into a frenzy. The elder fell to the ground, dropped his weapon and held his hands to his ears.

“Now play and sing as never before, Song Warrior—and dance,” he heard the bear say.

And he did, breaking into a song as free as the wind that began moving through the deadened plain, rustling the distant cottonwoods.

The warrior drummed a rhythm so powerfully syncopated that its resonance shattered the blackened ground and he was sure he saw green shoots rise. He lifted his feet and danced with such passion the people watched in awe. The warrior’s voice sent his melody through the valley and the bear’s baritone backed him. They danced to the centre of the encampment and sang their resounding song and to the warrior’s amazement, some of the Heart Eaters began to move in time with his music, mouthing his rapid fire syllables.

One after another they joined him.

Through his moistening eyes he saw the tribespeople coming from the hills into the valley—an ever increasing gathering of his people and as they came and danced, the black ground grew shoots of green. He saw his mother and father arrive, smiling at him, tears in their eyes. Then the rain came and as the afternoon advanced, the streams filled and ran clear.

The song warrior and the bear danced their rhythm and sang their melody into the night and their enthusiasm increased as the people danced and sang with them. Their song brought green to the earth and release to the people’s hearts. Soon there was no distinguishing the Heart Eaters from the tribespeople. They were as one body—one heart revelling, dancing and celebrating the renewal that surged around them in the ringing forest, above them in the moonlight that shone through the breaking clouds and beneath their feet in the lush, luminous grasses.

 

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LOVE LETTER FROM MOTHER EARTH

Written for Xiuhtezcatl Martinez on the occasion of his 17th birthday

By James W Barnes

May 9, 2017

 

My Dear Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh,

As you step from the hectic year of flappable sixteen

into the uncertain responsibilities of seventeen,

I decided to let you know how you’ve made me feel

through this past decade of your unflinching passion.

 

Though it’s true others much—much—older than you

have tried to save me with candidates shot down,

marches ignored, campaigns launched and forgotten,

you have been—different. You have been my child.

I watched you grow under an Aztec father’s arm

and an activist’s mother’s heart, a family’s bond.

Your naked feet ran on my moist soil and caressed me

with dances of Iztacuahtli—white eagle’s rhythms.

I gifted you my turquoise at birth which you mirror:

a stone so precious that a nation counted their

worth by its adornment on their sun-baked bodies.

 

But that was not enough for my Turquoise mirror,

my white eagle, my sun child, Tonatiuh, not enough.

You sat one night and lived my story of pain,

the story of your species who lost sight of their heart.

You wept that long night with me and made a promise:

“I have to speak.” And you have never stopped.

 

You speak for me from stages of my every corner.

I feel you step onto my soil in diverse Europe,

in Mexico, your native land, in Aotearoa

where Maui embraces your place as rangatira;

I feel your bold walking and the sensation

of your loving steps revive me.

 

But not only do you speak, my turquoise child,

you dance like the playful jaguar at night,

you sing like the coyote that makes the

two-leggeds wake and dream.

Your lyrics draw my terrestrial magic from my heart

and make all my beings hear my breath

and remember their true earthen identity:

one unbroken web.

 

On this day of your birth as the May moon grows full

what gift can I possibly give you?

What honour can I bestow on a man

who has always been my tender cherished child?

I can only give my summer breeze whispering thank you.

I can let you touch the waves of my sea as my embrace.

I can share the mystery of the star lit night

blazing with fiery comets that dance like your music,

knowing I myself am one of these cosmic orbs.

I can let you weep with joy in my clean rain

on your precious Colorado mountains.

I gift you the kiss of my first winter snowflakes

on your open, visionary eyes.

I give you the deer’s silent gaze knowing

she stands safely in her silent forest

shoulder to shoulder with her brother Xiuhtezcatl

who contemplates a wakened humanity

and dreams my rebirth.

 

Thank you. I love you,

Your beloved Mother Earth

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SILENT INTENT

December, 2016

 

Is it possible that one man can consume

the silence of so many?

I wander through my streams

of distant emotions

expecting some chartered itinerary

for my own silence.

 

I remember watching my family drive away leaving me

standing in the misty shadow of the twisted ivy pine.

I stood and watched the last red and chrome

vanish behind the dense coastal scrub

wondering why I’d been forgotten.

Alone.

 

Then I turned and walked to the deep hushed creek

concealed beneath the dancing reeds and grasses

where the trout cared little for the story behind

my tears mixed in the still swirling eddy.

I knelt willing myself to become the trout

And dart beneath the waving water forest,

living a forever hidden life in silent currents

With one intended purpose in life—to live.

 

I cry inside without knowing why.

I laugh and wonder how.

I shout. I whisper. I breathe.

Every moment passes and I can’t have it again—

all these momentous deaths turn me to my broken heart

where together we stop and notice the world hovering;

waiting for the trout’s wisdom and the family’s return.

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PHOENIX

 

May 5, 2016

 

We stand, you and I, on a shore filtered in coal sand,

our bare toes digging into mystery and black thought,

frozen in a time when our soul was the sum of our skin

and our image in the mirror wept with eye contact.

 

We turn, you and I, in a forest blackened by ennui

and whispering the mourner’s lament sung by mutes,

stepping in leaf mulch crackling with emptied hope,

and our place in our private history lost in refuted detail.

 

Gurus, sages and seers turn silent in their caves.

Singers of familiar protests forget the words and pause.

Dancers who knew each tune lose their balance and fall.

Artists whose eyes blur now rage against unfamiliar light.

Ministers of lethargic liturgies close the sacristy doors.

 

We reflect, you and I, in the ashes beneath our feet,

deciding to decide to shift our encrusted toes and dance,

our bare minds rhythm into the mystery stirring our dreams,

thawing from this time that trapped our skinned souls,

and our image in the mirror breathes again with soul contact.

 

Wings and wind rise from the cold and crusted soil

Our pacing steps beat life from the waking earth.

The forest, the shore, the dancers, singers and sages

turn in unison, trembling in our cosmic brazen rave.

And we who were burning in the dark fire of yesterday,

sing the rising of the Phoenix in the dawning Now.

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SONG OF STANDING ROCK

 

November 30, 2016

 

Buffalo nation singing ancient rhythms with drumming hooves,

Eagle tribe soaring on time’s wind and memory’s wings.

Trout people hovering in liquid melodies beneath secret eddies,

Wolf brothers, coyote sisters, all creatures of our people’s clans:

 

Stand with us now and chant these prayers of power,

Rise with us today and hear our grandmothers’ refrain.

These are the sounds of one people, one earth.

Ours are the lyrics of a culture never beaten again.

 

Dance with us now to these steps of wild resolve,

Trill full-throated in the howling winter snows,

Laugh in the face of a force that is dying

with the black snake returning to its hidden hole.

 

Walk with us now to the healing Missouri current

Where our faces, our feathers, our eyes reflect life.

Lock arms round these wounded banks of restoration:

Our circle of sacred water, sacred ground, sacred hearts.

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Wheels and Chains

I am wheels and chains, greased by expectations and habit.

Perpetually watching the commands of time and space—

Space defined by what once was endless and promising

Time controlled by what never was in spite of eternity.

My wheels grind these days for the greasing’s grown old

My well-oiled habits are stressing the chains where

The links pull taught and the weld begins to give.

 

The well-oiled machine has a rhythmic drone,

Repeating the sounds of the tasks it knows.

The sound of yes to this no to that—

The sound of maybe then and sometimes never,

The sound of sounds that sound from silence.

 

 

This well-oiled machine is grinding with age,

Perpetual energy has escaped its time

And he watches knowing his time will come

And the oil will run dry, the chains will break,

The wheels will collapse,

The sounds fall mute.

 

Yet this machine has eyes that peer from shadows

Where the light is shaded behind the turning wheels.

These eyes look deep to the centre of the motion

And there from inside the rhythmed noise—

A heart.

This heart beats in a rhythm of tales,

singing songs of faces lost to all

but the singer and the storyteller.

 

Can a machine replace the teller of tales?

Can the wheels and chains become metaphors,

Linguistic dances and unfathomable depths

From mythic and mystic times and lands?

 

I am wheels and chains and cannot say.

Watching from programmed walls I wait.

But the dance of the myths, the song of the mystic.

The teller of truths otherwise hidden—

They all whisper the truth I know.

I am what I make me, not what others have formed.

I am what I make me.

Make me I am.

 

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