John Barrale

Funeral Parlor Holy Pictures and the Nature of Saints

I collect Holy Pictures of Saints. I stare at them and they wink back.
They puzzle me, these countless simple Anthonys and carpenter Josephs,
their women not so many, mostly sad Theresas, and rosary-bearing Marys,
all their forms ringed by light as they float by on clouds
looking like singers in the ultimate sky opera.

Their scrubbed forms are clad in robes of impossible colors—
wondrous shades of teal and blue
that were never spun on old Jerusalem’s looms
but brushed in rain that fell
from a crazy artist’s palette.

Yet for all their kitsch, I am drawn to something hidden here.

These brides and grooms of Christ were never meek.
Some have fire in their beards, their eyes a drumming dance,
their faces wild, ecstatic, afflicted, bathed in a different light
while others are silent, meditative, shorn,
their dark sacrifice evident in the monk’s tonsure,
or the virgin’s close crop.

All are pregnant, ripe with God’s essence.
Men and women alike are heavy with halo,
their heads encircled but not bowed by the weight
of their beauty and strangeness.

Because we cannot accept, we draw them as incarnate,
creatures like us, oddly meaty, and of the flesh—
strange not quite mirror images, that comfort as we color in
the not so subtle red of roses—
a red tinged with regret for the faith that deformed them
promised summer’s flowers but gave a martyr’s spring
in deaths that forever halted time
and took away life’s future, imperfect moments.

Timeless now, they are snapshots, forever trapped
in a moment of wonder, as one hand touches a breast on fire
or a heart crowned by thorns
while the other, its outline a ghost,
fingers tipped in silver light,
points to mysteries off the picture’s edge
and out of sight.

Perhaps, they look to some moon-like sea or heavenly pond,
the better place where good Saints go to drown,
or to eternal parks where they can finally rest,
benched like holy bookends
among the shelves of righteous dead.

As I kneel to pay my respects, I always pick one up,
a gift, a souvenir, the numbing stub
of the one way ticket
left behind by the departed.

And, as I walk past the box, I slyly inhale
the rich, dark smell of the wreaths and flowers.
And, for a moment, I become again
the Catholic school boy charmed
by a Saint’s picture
and the bitter-sweet chocolate
of the gold-leaf prayers.


Western Sketches

Highways West

No more the old moon, holy
with rockets
and Jesus
and Mary—

but long live the first light:
the most human,
the pure breath.

Hail with me then the morning—
a saint’s song
in rivers of gold—

each glimmering silo
a galaxy
by star fields of corn—

the ears old souls
their karma stilled—

the germ of life come to rest,
in ancestral rows
wind catchers
and sailors
no more—

the DNA
steepled and arched,
a handful of prayers—

the halleluiahs
of Iowa’s Baptist fields

in the morning sun.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Flowers and a Half Foot of Cross

In the Dakotas alone, we counted over a 100,
most were placed in the curves and bends.

Some were weathered down to rags.
Others new, the skid marks still panting.

None had a name.

We stopped once to check—
the headlights like a loved one
pouring over the dead.

We wanted a funeral
and a story.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Little Bighorn

Looking out,
I wonder where the horses fell,
pulled down,
their screams unbearable.

The wind picks up.

What was it like
the first winter after?
when the sky
looked down
on the bones
with solemn,
snow-filled light.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

For the Seventh

On the ceiling, the Seventh is rallying.
They will win tonight.
And I am lying in the dark, a boy again,
with Custer’s Last Stand
my favorite Landmark Book
charging in my head.
Someone tell me their story again.
Someone make me believe they were good men.
Outside the night is threaded with stars.
The Black Hills are a thick forest;
Deadwood is its crotch.
The first hints of autumn rage like a bear.
The moon in Montana was a bigger window,
a place to peer in from my outside
and watch change darken.
Here, I must feed on shadows.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

On a Street in Kalispell

We could have gone on that way forever.
And in a way we did, slipping beyond time.
All the parts of us there and not there, playing on,
a movie they forgot to stop after the theater emptied.
You and I my love. On a street in Kalispell, Montana.
The Rockies behind us now, on the American side,
waiting for morning like a sleeping castle—
the new day in our hands,
a paper-wrapped doughnut
and a cup of coffee,
the act of being you and I simple again,
just a shoelace we tie and untie in the half-light.
You and I my love. There and not there.
A presence unseen but felt.
Stars and planets in the daytime sky.


Black Sunglasses Yellow Cab (1969): the Fare at 38th and Lexington

Of all the whores
Asia dressed the best,
her skirts fiery twirls
like the curried rice
with pine nuts
she brought me once.

10 bucks
bought her beauty
to its knees,

and though black,
her hair
was flecked with gold
the roots streaked
the dust of Babylon settled.

To the hope-lined nest
of her mouth
my love would fly,
flash its feathered glory
then go away.

She cooed
pass the bottle,
I asked
where are you from?

She cocked her head
like a strange new race of parrot,

Honey, for twenty bucks
I can be from anywhere.

– J


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