One Poem

Tony Barnstone


For her birthday I bought eight small gifts, a silver pen with rubber grip, a silver hair clip, a silver Zippo lighter on which I had engraved You are a poem. A glass and silver box within which were seven smaller glass and silver boxes. A lavender and olive oil soap bar, a lavender mist, a lavender and aloe hand lotion. And other gifts, all lavender and silver, each in its own small box, wrapped in hand-made paper, with ribbons, bows, and loving notes. And what made it better was that it all cost too much and we were much too poor, so how she'd love me more when I pulled out each new gift we couldn't afford.

I gave her the soap when she woke up, the lotion over coffee, and saved the rest for other meals, for with the cake, and on the dance floor, and before bed. And right before we left to meet our friends she called out, "Take the garbage," which I did, the five white bags laid by the door, and walked them to the dumpster, then went back for our bags. And now you know the rest. Of course I'd thrown the presents out, and of course when I ran out minutes later the garbage truck had just left with all the presents nestled in its belly.

And we jumped into the car and raced around the neighborhood until we found the truck, and I leapt out and convinced the nice garbage men to let me climb into that underworld in my dress shoes and pants and dig. Inside the truck, up to my knees in muck, while the garbage men looked on and lent me gloves and their advice, I lifted stinking paper bags, newspapers and broken toys, and tossed them in a whirl of flies and anger for an hour, until, exhausted, I sat down in the garbage and breathed it in, the smell of my own failure.

And now each time I pass the Dumpster I say Oh, and look inside, as if the cosmos might take pity and the gifts appear, as if the cosmos practiced recycling, and why not? —Adam made from clay and Eve from bone, Lazarus brought back from death, the Jewish rabbi dead and then reborn, stranger things have happened, or so they say. But no, they don't come back. And though the woman who was then my wife forgave me the second I climbed down the ladder into that world of trash, it took me longer to accept. At first I took some comfort in the notion of the presents waiting in their boxes underground for some future exhumation. But later I gave up on that illusion, gave in and knew that though they went astray, the nature of the gifts is that they're given, and given away.

Tony Barnstone

Tony Barnstone, Professor of English at Whittier College, is the author of eleven books. His second book of poems, Sad Jazz: Sonnets, appeared in 2005 with Sheep Meadow Press. His most recent book of poems, The Golem of Los Angeles, won the Benjamin Saltman Award in Poetry and was published in late 2007 by Red Hen Press. His books of translation include Chinese Erotic Poems (Everyman Press, 2007) and The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (Anchor Books, 2005).