I met Wendy Barker during this year’s AWP conference for writers in Minneapolis, at a bar called the Crooked Pint, the venue for an offsite reading curated by Laura Madeline Wiseman for her anthology titled Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence. Wendy and I were among about a dozen contributors scheduled to read that night. Rushed and tired from three very full days of talking with 12,000-plus writers and editors, I sat down and shuffled my notes, not saying much to the others at the table. But when Wendy got up to read, I was jerked into attention, riveted by her words and also by her warmth and her quietly passionate stage presence. I asked her to send me some poems, and when I read this one, I knew it was right for the column that would appear today, on Mother’s Day.

“Gathering Bones” is an example of a “prose poem,” which does not use line breaks and presents text in block form that resembles prose but is nevertheless considered a poem because of its intense, condensed language or other poetic qualities. Without line breaks, the rhythm of the sentence (as opposed to the rhythm of the line) drives the poem. Here, Barker’s long, unbroken lines create texture and a matrix that can hold and amass an intricate weave of stories about complicated familial connections.

“Gathering Bones” braids two narratives-of-narratives: one, a film about a farmer whose retrieval of bones allows him to construct a history of the Holocaust in which he finds himself complicit; and another, the history of the speaker’s mother, reconstructed from memory and dreams and what the speaker fills in with her imagination. It also braids the speaker with her mother in strands that are separate but so close that it is unclear who is gripping whose hand all the way to the poem’s surprising and wonderful ending, a literal and metaphoric melding and gilding that recreates the story of every mother and every daughter.

—Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor


Gathering Bones

Like a book, Mom said about life: you turn the page and go on. The same way she moved in and out of houses. Garage sale after sale. Each year like a chapter torn from a book’s spine and hurled.

But some of us go back, looking for patterns. The way a novel builds, chapter upon chapter, like a pelvis resting on the femur, femur on the patella, on the tibia and fibula.

That film I can’t forget: Aftermath, story of a Catholic Polish farmer who discovers Jewish tombstones buried under the town’s road. He’s obsessed with digging them up, five-foot, rounded headstones, one by one. Doesn’t know why. He plants them in rows, like corn, in his field. Learns Hebrew, reads the inscriptions, names and names.

During the months before she died, when I begged her to talk about her childhood, my mother changed the subject, demanded more milk in her tea.

Let sleeping dogs lie, the villagers, even the young priest, warned that farmer.

Years ago, Mom told me about a nightmare. She was racing, breathless, through a walled, labyrinthian garden to save herself from a gigantic man. How many houses had it taken to escape? New Jersey, Arizona, house after house, different towns, and finally, in less than a decade, three houses in New Hampshire. Each one repainted.                                        

In the end the farmer learns it was his father who’d led the villagers in a round-up of the local Jews, locking them in the family’s cottage, which he set on fire. His own father.

Once I dreamed of myself as a toddler, walking down an unlit hospital hall with closed doors on both sides. I was holding my mother’s hand. But no, she was gripping mine.

The night before the family’s ceremonial scattering of Mom’s ashes on the New Hampshire lake she’d loved, I slept with the canister beside me. Sunrise, I carried it down to the dock, opened the lid. Her bones crushed, but in one place. I reached in, gathered a small handful, and over my arms and legs spread powdery flakes. I slipped then, into the water that carried them, glittering, in the light.



“Gathering Bones” first appeared in Superstition Review. Reprinted by permission of the author.

barkerWendy Barker‘s sixth collection of poetry, One Blackbird at a Time: The Teaching Poems, has been awarded the John Ciardi Prize and is forthcoming from BkMk Press. A fourth chapbook is forthcoming from Wings Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry 2013. She serves as poetry editor for Persimmon Tree: An Online Magazine of the Arts for Women Over Sixty, and is poet-in-residence at the University of Texas at San Antonio.


Editor’s Note: Persimmon Tree, a wonderful magazine that showcases and celebrates the creativity and talent of women over sixty, can be found at http://www.persimmontree.org/v2/


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  • Mickey May 10, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Secrets of our families’ pasts. Profound, seismic shifts to depths of our lives to read this poem. Thank you.