Tony Barnstone
        A native of Connecticut, Tony Barnstone grew up in an artistic environment and has spent much of his life traveling the world, exploring other cultures and traditions. He is a champion of contemporary Chinese poetry and has translated, edited and written many books on Middle-Eastern and Chinese literature. He is currently the Albert Upton Professor of English Language and Literature at Whittier College. His poetry collections include the books Impure; Sad Jazz: Sonnets; the Golem of Los Angeles; and Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki.
        Within neat, meticulously organized and sedate-looking stanzas, the poems of Tony Barnstone offer the reader surprises of both a metaphysical and a sensual nature. His poems are laid out on the page like staid suburban homes with white picket fences, but often what is going on within these structures is raucous and wrenching. Like the house in the novel/film Revolutionary Road, much of what goes on in this work tells of what we’d rather not hear about—and yet we can’t stop reading. He writes with relish about the joys of pissing and defecating. The mere sight of a trail of ants trying to haul a piece of meat away can be the starting point for far-reaching reflections. A World War II agent of destruction, efficiently annihilating the Japanese in caves, recounts the atrocities of the past calmly, in admirable Shakespearean sonnet form. In the poem “Mail Slut”—again, written in elegant stanzas—he takes on a topic more delicate, more frightening, more sickening than bodily functions or even (to my mind) war, a topic familiar to all writers, except maybe John Updike: namely, the act of waiting by a mailbox for letters of acceptance. The poem is written in such a “slant,” layered, understated and yet vivid manner that the actual texture of the experience gets perfectly transported to readers—not to their minds, but to their bodies.


Mail Slut

The Soul selects her own Society--
Then--Shuts the Door--
Emily Dickinson
She calls him mail slut because he waits
by the box, his heart quietly ballooning
for the Chinese postman to hand him
the latest rejections with a smile.

They leave a scar,
these afflictions sent by airmail,
but how much better
than the zero of an empty box

to pull against delicious gravity,
orbiting off to water the bulbs,
to pay the Visa before it crushes him,
while the universe shifts

off center and starts
to fall into the white rectangle
left unopened on the table.
“Hello, Mail Slut,” she says at the door,

keys in hand, then leaves him
to enjoy the wild mutilation
of hope. When the envelope
opens him up, the cut goes deep.

He tilts Dickinson down from the shelf,
miserably reads the letter
she wrote to the world, that never
wrote to her. She says publication

is the auction of the mind,
that the brain is wider than the sky,
and sure enough his head swells up
like the planet as words buzz his ears

and occasionally drop in flame
like bits of spinning space junk.
He knows. Junk is junk.
The bulbs are rotting in the ground.

But he collects what falls
out of the air—booster rockets—old space suits,
and like some mad engineer
starts to build again.

“I’m going, Mail Slut,” she says,
but he’s already left, drifting like a comet
among the cotton stars, in a place
where he can wait by the box, tinker

with the fence, dig around for
his superglue, and listen
in the cosmic silence to the hiss
of his oxygen leaking away.


Originally published in Impure, University Press of Florida, 1999.  


2012 Tony Barnstone
Tony Barnstone was a Featured Poet who read his poetry April 2012 at the Second Sunday Poetry Series.