Barry Seiler: Retaining Wall

Copyright © 1979 by Barry Seiler.

For permission to reprint and distribute, contact Barry Seiler at

For Dian


The Fear
Who Are These People
Variations on China
Dream After the Winter Solstice
Costing Bread
Up the Coast
The Day
The Story
The Story
The Story


My Grandfather's Table
Imagining my Grandfather
Digging in the Streets of Gold
Uncle David: 1946
Finding My Room
The Pond
A Night in 1962
One Spring Day
The Crows

The Fathers

Fathers' Faces
Bearded Father
Fathers Without Sons
Fathers Metamorphosing
Fathers and Hearts
Father Sleeping in a Chair
Fathers and Wood
Portrait of a Father as a Peasant
Portrait of a Father as a Proletarian
Immigrant Fathers
At the Tomb of the Unknown Father
Invisible Fathers
Old Fathers
Father Time
Ghost Fathers
Fathers Dancing in the Moonlight


The Fear
What if early death
or loss of friends
or love rejected or

gone unknown
into the hungry air
should down me

brushing my teeth
hunting for gray
in my hair

listening to the radio
on a dreary Sunday P.M.
fear is the floor

beneath the rug
Nat Cole singing
Once in a While

Who Are These People
Sometimes a head and then a body.
Sometimes a body placed
beneath a head. And then:
who are these people?

Sometimes, on the street,
you see one. And another then.
And the sun in the sky like a swinging door.
And who are these people? Or,

they gather sometimes. Some
you see at tables
huddled around their drinks
as though the drinks were flames.

Others appear and vanish
in strobic vignettes. One
sits by you spilling
her marriage woes. (Who is she?)

You want to give her something.
Take this sandwich, please.
She won't go away. There is
no end to others.

They won't go away.
And the sun in the sky like a swinging door.

Who are these people
waiting in line like a list
of grievances? Where
does this line go? To the sun?

What do they want? Lips
move and hands gesture.
They are pointing to the sun.
They want it to go away.

Sometimes it is dark.
The streets are empty. You can hear
the doors close like sighs
of relief. Heads

and bodies
placed tenderly on beds.
They want each other to go away.
And millions of dreams filled with petitioning.

Variations on China
Never to repair the wounds of heaven,
but to lie in bed and dream of China
burdened by small breasted women
and friends who imply great sorrow in a touch
as thousands of miles away
love lies buried under the Wall of China,
memory vanishing like jars filled with tokens.

China's cities are wedded to the stars,
her maps held together by rivers.
The women of China have small breasts.
The first born are kept in jars.
When the women of China sob,
the rivers unlock a secret door
where Confucian perversions dominate.
The honey of heaven drips slowly from their breasts.

Where once I planned mass executions of my friends,
a telephone stands.
The line to China is busy.
Countless fingers grow from the phone
as grievances increase.
I consider the manifest destiny of a leaf.

With Rimbaud-like motions my friends explore China.
What I remember barely fills a jar.
The moon hunts out its pirates.
My friends plunder telephone booths
in claustrophobic fits of passion.
I place the white thread of sorrow
around the neck of a small breasted woman.

The Chinese laugh at the moon.
They fill their ships with leaves and dreams.
Endless sorrows plague their government.
Their gold outlives their beards.
Honey drips.

My small breasted friends are strangled by sorrow
My pain resides beneath the shadow of the moon
where the wounds of heaven pour forth
oriental madness to kill our dreams.
And my Chinese friends, numerous as telephones,
babble on like rivers . . . like rivers.

Dream After the Winter Solstice
I bore myself a long way
in my hands,
saw myself struggling across the bleak terrain
of Bergman's Seventh Seal,
where Death leads his victims in a dance.

And though it was a dream
I wanted to come through,
convince myself of something. I don't know what.

In the faint light of the winter solstice
a cat stretched across my chest
pawing mindlessly.
I thought of Scott Fitzgerald's hell in Hollywood,
of his gestures shrinking into failure.

I lay back on the wrinkled sheets of the bed
watching the past contract
to a dot of blue light,
calmed by the fact of the house
and of what exists without a thought of me.

Costing Bread
Doesn't it matter that I'm
crouched in the corner
reading by light
of an invisible moon?

I'm reading the oldest story
you could ever dream. . . .

Something about hands
spying on each other,
something about casting bread
and waiting by a river.

Doesn't it matter that hope
dogs me through the future,
false and the other kind
with one good wing?

I need a table shaped like an oar,
another life to sleep in.

I need someone to catch the difference
as it stumbles
not knowing where to fall next.

Up The Coast
For Alex
Working lives out by phone
is no less futile than by poetry.
It's all voice: in the head
or out, up the coast or down.
You'd think there was some way
to have coffee in a quiet shop,
find time to reminisce.
All the really good gestures are gone,
forgotten in this state of surfaces.
You say it's raining in San Francisco.
Last week the Santa Anas blew
blustering down the avenue
close to the ground.
You have to take everything as omen
when there's no interior to work through.
You have to say something, even
simply hello,
stretched like a hyphen between climates.

This is my place
and the time moves
as I choose. And I
select the songs
that make a simple
grace of quiet.
Common courtesy,
I know, dictates
otherwise, but sit
here on the floor
by me. The couch
is awkward and made
neither for love
nor comfort. Don't
be hesitant. Just
settle down.

Beneath the floor
I hear my neighbors
fucking: the precise
of earned passion,
the 'oohs' and
of delight
drift up.
is tenderness,
later playfulness
and the small attentions
of lovers. Again,
and still again
their insistencies
drift upward. Lovers,

I turn on the radio,
hear the astronauts are ill
in the vastness of space,
to their stomachs
and their craft failing.
can we ever surmount
these difficulties.

And this morning
I heard a pigeon
going crazy in the eaves,
as though caught,
beating his wings
with terrible urgency
against the house.
What could I do,
but listen
till he freed himself.

The Day

The day caught him
He had risen only
to break

the great chain of sleep,
read poetry
if the elements permitted.

Bending over the flower,
a weed, he saw
a pivot for satisfaction

to turn on,
absorbing nuances of sunlight.

And knew he needed
a hand, an arm,
something breathing to lean upon
and make small talk.

He needed her to arrive home
that moment
and enter the garden,
to share delight
as it circled closer,

no longer a phantom,
nor imperceptible.
Slower and slower the days pass.

The rain gathers and departs
in a fine mist,
a clinging invisibility.

He stands at the garden's gate,
watches dimensions collected like old debts,
the endless traffic of the present.

All depth is taken.
He's left with his life's flat edge.

What can he say that bears repeating,
that he could say again
and not diminish?

No one calls.
No one comes to call.

The meat of a word
lodged deep in his throat.

The marrow and bone.
The song's motionless in the air.
The bird is.
Then descends to the bush.

The dog whines for nothing.
Nothing will come of it.
No one will feed her,
comfort her.
She paces, frantic,
the narrow channel between
their house his fence.

He checks the mail
knowing quite well
it hasn't arrived.

The noon ritual. Regardless.
Playing the stops of time.

He should send himself a card:

"habit's vainest creature
the man singing to himself."
That is to say.

Sitting in the semi-dark
telling the phone to ring,
what small insistence he contains
wasted on the mute instrument.

Who is the man
who's known to be alone,
who craves the company
of only one woman?
The curse of his family men:

to be dumbly domestic,
to be unable to help themselves,

to sit in a chair after dinner
curled like a cat
wrapped in his own heat,

to bed alone
pretending to be asleep
on and on
in the dark room till dawn.
The burden of proof. Resting
in the easy chair.
Soliciting footsteps:

this one a male,
this a female.

Who will arrive
to break the spell of poetry?

Lives dazed into art by syntax.

A map of suffering
giving no relief.

That evening
he saw the satellite
pass through the sky
one frame at a time,
and felt the tenses shift.

The Story
The story that forgets to tell itself is no less a story than the one that begs to be told nor is that reluctance a virtue but, simply, a posturing for that attention each story craves. What a sorry sight: a man sits at his desk trying to write a story. He's been there two, perhaps three hours knowing there is no story to write, and that any story that does get written will be the activity's story, not his. The typewriter hums distractedly as a man does busy at some menial task. He needs an electric typewriter because he has confused the weary expression "plugged in" with the literal fact of being plugged in. He believes the network of wires of which his fingers are an extension actually is a conductor of words. It's all a silliness out of Cocteau's radio and should have been left in that place. The typewriter is humming "It's quarter to three, there's no one in the place except you and me." But now he is hearing the voice of the woman singing in the bedroom softly and seductively, almost to herself. Had she forgiven him their quarrel or was she mocking him, bored, peeved at placing second to that machine? Weary, unable to locate inspiration, he rose from the defeat from which he fashioned pleasure, defeated in his heart again.

The Story
In fact, the time did weigh heavy on his hands. It was a substance fashioned from available material. Some thing that could hold or be held. Or, in the story, it was a woman sitting in the corner of the room reading a book. Calling it a woman, it acquired shape and a pleasing countenance, a quaint tilt of the head, a manner of fussing with her hair. He was pleased that he could relegate this factor to the role of an image. He wanted to explain the process, to lay out the associational links of his imagination, but something prevented him. Now he wanted to ask her what she was reading, to make small talk, to justify his own presence in the room. But she was engrossed in the book. He knew she was edgy, if disturbed she would leave the room abruptly with practiced gestures, familiar moves, the index finger of her right hand marking her place in the book. It was possible the book was a prop, that, in the story she was watching him standing at the window. He would turn to her and smile, give acknowledgement of her presence, but she would say something cutting about how he wasted his days and they would quarrel. He watched the weather shift. A slowly unfolding pattern of clouds moved in from the mountains, floating high and thin-edged like the pages of a book, The light turned gray and dull along the edge of the sky.

The Story
The plane, moving against time, against the motion of the sun, was an instrument for healing, cutting from his system the melancholic idea of that other place. He wanted to be free of the sense that all possibility was attended by regret so that the future was bathed in nostalgia. In all the simplicity of the term he wanted to be here. The woman sat in front of him. She was lovely the way certain fashion models are lovely, a face made to extract a reaction of distant admiration. Her cheekbones, two dramatic sweeps, were faint allusions to the primitive. There was a blond, perfect child on her 1ap; another peered out the window; a third, considerably older, he took to be a brother. He wanted to meet her. More exactly, he wanted to know her, to come to her with a shared past and the assurance of a predictable future. He wanted to ask her how she was and what she was up to, and not have to explain himself, to endlessly explain himself. But all through the flight the child squawled and cried. Later, in the city, he strolled through a museum trying to fix his image in each image presented him, pained to think he had to see himself in terms of something else until all that he was was outside himself, distant and metaphorical. He listened disinterestedly to the story until he could distinguish her voice. They walked together slowly through a Miro exhibition. He made a trivial comment on Miro's imposition of form upon surfaces that seemed to stretch to infinity. She nodded, and he was pleased she saw the work through his eyes. Coffee later, and then he accompanied her as she shopped for children's clothes. They parted uneasily in the evening rush retreating to the edge of a story neither would tell the other within the frame of a story telling them to itself.


adorns your faces
like a keepsake
you mouth
the one word
the future allows
like a guest
entering the small dark
of a closet
to the clothes

My Grandfather"s Table
Smoke is rising from the boiled potatoes
in the rose-bottomed bowl
on my grandfather's table. My father

is waiting for the rose to appear
pried from the weight of the family's hunger.
Above the table, like a spirit
unsure of which body to enter, the smoke lingers. Eat!

my grandfather urges. Eat. Eat
and grow stronger. Eat so the rose will appear.

Imagining My Grandfather
In a novelist's Warsaw,
in a long shabby coat,
a red bearded Jew stands on a street corner
nodding his head.

The future whispers in his ear
in Yiddish. He shrugs.
Nothing surprises him.

He will walk down that street
entering any room they tell him to enter.

He will board that train
pretending to pretend it's a mere relocation.

In the prayerhouse the Messiah plays cards,
killing time.
He makes bad jokes like a traveling salesman.
He farts and forgets to apologize.

Digging in the Streets of Gold
My parents were fish.
They came from Europe, swimming.

This was before Hitler was invented,
when a wheel barrow of money
got you a loaf of bread.

Twice, they voted for Stevenson,
and he dropped dead on the streets of London.

Mamie was drunk. McCarthy mad.

They did their jobs.
They didn't weep over the Rosenbergs.

They tried to buy their way
out of history.
The rising elevator was their armor.
The wolf at the door was the family crest.

Two weeks before he died, my father smiled wisely
over murdered Kennedy, and lifted his shovel
and bent his back,
and went to dig in the streets of gold.

Uncle David: 1946
The year I am born
the Paradise plays
"The Best Years of Our Lives."
Turning the corner
onto the Grand Concourse
you stop, claw for your heart
with your wrinkled scholar's hands,
sprout wings and rise
above the Bronx. Uncle,
you were the first to reach
the suburbs: a small plot
out on the Island.
Today, you do not lack
company. All the wives,
the wise guy brothers
with their flies at half mast
have joined you.
Their only assimilation.
You were The Oldest.
The Saint. The Brain.
A half dozen languages
so why isn't he married?

Say it is early Spring.
You arrive at your sister's
bearing lox, bagels and rolls
warm from the oven.
My father sits by the window,
remote, a wage earner.
You two don't talk.
As he looks on, and my sister,
awed, looks on,
you touch my mother's belly
hat still pushed back on your head
and say the one word
for hello, for good-bye.

Finding My Room
The fool sat on the steps
singing his song
in a wordless whine.
I climbed beyond him
through hallways long and dark
as subway tunnels
running under the water,
feeling my way, opening doors
into strangeness
strange for all that was repeated:
the shapes of those rooms,
the furniture
turned from the sun
to save their dull colors,
the old world odors.
I heard the words
shatter against the wall
like empty glasses, the steps
of the troubled husband
tapping out a code, rain
in the courtyard
soothing the soot covered leaves.
Far below,
I saw the light trickling
into the deep well of the stairs,
and knew it would rise, floor to floor
seeking its level, seeking
me finding my room,
tender and remote as a parent
to bear me half waking,
half sleeping.
I lived there.

The Pond
When I fell in at five,
they fished me out.
The stranger holding me
laughed, his trousers rolled up
like shirt sleeves. My mother,
drowning on the shore,
could find no life to pass by
worth living twice. Years later,
I made him her lover.
From the distance, as I played,
I watched them together
sitting quietly on a bench near the pond.
They came from the same town.
My mother marveled
that people might live so close
yet never meet. They laughed,
rose from the bench
and strolled by. The ducks
sparkled gaily in the sun.
My mother knelt to feed them bread,
stirring her hand over the water.

A Night in 1962
My father's silhouette sneaks a smoke
in the john. The fire he swallowed forty years ago
exits in small shapeless puffs he studies indifferently.

On the rooftop, friends watch for missles
that will brush by them gentle as the breath
of a shopper in a department store.

The grocer walks by with his finger to his lips
like a town crier in a ghost town. He has a method
for surviving holocausts.

His heart is a heap of ashes
occasionally flaring.

One Spring Day
One spring day
in the woods in Germany,
I found a piece of string
tied carelessly around a tree.

A couple strolled by and embraced.
I watched from a rock
as they stepped into the deep woods

I remembered a photo of myself
in a row of children,
the names holding down the tiny faces
like paperweights,

and one of my mother
dressed as a gypsy,
eager and young
before the birth of her daughter.

The Crows
At that height
they might be four black stars
or the small dark eyes of my ancestors
bereft of kindness.

In their beaks they bear
the scroll of my life: the story
I don't know how to tell.

Their endless orbiting might be an alphabet
spelling the same words again and again:
and as though.


The Fathers

Fathers' Faces
Their faces are breaking free
again. The door blows open.
They can walk into any dream they choose.

They choose yours. They put their faces
on your face. You yank them off.
They appropriate breath. They float above you

like smoke. They resemble you.
You resemble them.
They are crying. Alive,

they never cried. You see them
shrunken in their immense coffins
like babies in bathtubs.

There are too many.
Too many griefs to choose from.
And you don't know which you prefer.

Bearded Fathers
Beneath their beards
they are fading
like Victorian photographs.

They stare straight ahead
beyond you, beyond the wall,
beyond fatherhood
to a camera lens
embedded in a skull, embedded
in a Jew in western Russia.

Their families surround them
like jewels on a crown,
like dung around a dray horse

Fearing erections,
children may not sit
on their laps.

Fathers Without Sons
Fathers without sons: smoke
without fire. They can't enter heaven.
Hell won't have them.

Hands in pockets.
A new t.v. not yet paid for.

They read the paper
weeping at the sports section.
Who will go out for a pass
in the dark night of the soul?

They roam' the house,
opening and closing doors.

In the bedroom,
a mirror grows a face from loneliness.
The face grows a beard.

Mothers in corners like spider webs.

Fathers Metamorphosing
A father with roots for feet stands in the yard,
stamps down hard, and stretches out his arms.

Soon there is a lovely shade tree for the family.

Mother sits beneath it, sipping lemonade, knitting,
her legs tanning gently beneath a billowy summer dress.

The children build a swing in it.

The youngest climbs all the way to the top
where he stands with his arms stretched straight up,
his feet in father's eyes.

"There," his mother says, "you're that much closer
to heaven."

Fathers and Hearts
They are terrified of them.

They hear them pacing
like prisoners in a cell.

In a train
returning from work,
they hear them whispering to other hearts.

They will not sleep with their wives

Father Sleeping in a Chair
This trembling hand a wing.

This dreaming head an engine.

This newspaper over the face
a distant shimmering landscape,

a snowy alpine region
where figures the size of cells
wave frantically for rescue.

Fathers and Wood
They hear the coffin woo the nail
with promises.
Sounds like the breath of a fevered child.

To slam a door
is to open a wound.

To open a door
is to court disaster.

Snoring is a lifeline,
a trail of crumbs through the spooky woods
back from the terrible cottage.

Waking up a vindication.

Portrait of a Father as a Peasant
How peacefully he sleeps in that harvest.

An awesome-bossomed goddess
graces the field. Loaves
appear magically at her feet
and toddle off like children.

All is gold and happens slowly.

Capitalism rises
as a gentleman's erection.

Stones for a house gather at the field's edge.

Father sighs in his sleep.

Portrait of a Father as a Proletarian
He wakes on the bus
weaving through pits and dumps
to the edge of the city.

His lunch pail guides him like a seeing eye dog

Skinny cranes flay the air,
necks as beautiful as swans'.

The factory whistle sighs
like a disappointed goddess.

The Industrial Revolution sits in a chair
chain smoking.

Immigrant Fathers
On the ship the wind
caught up mother's kerchief
and father trembled.

In the harbor, shit-stained gulls
caroused overhead
creating an alphabet.
Father learned English then,
the language of birds and the future.

"Oh you kid," he said, and
"I can't give you anything
but love,

Mother's skirt rose straight up
and fluttered like Peary's flag
over the North Pole.

Or was it the South?

At the Tomb of the Unknown Father
Families come from everywhere,
convinced he is theirs.

A mother's yowl
pours out like smoke.

A son climbs it --
Jack in the Beanstalk --
and meets his infancy coming down.

Beneath the earth,
skin deserts skull
for a, new face.

Invisible Fathers
Perhaps they are here.
Something is.

Something trails you
sneaking from doorway to doorway
like a cheap detective.

Something you can't shake:
a feeling with skin.

You turn around.
You turn and turn and turn
dancing on the street corner

like a compass needle
gone crazy.

Old Fathers
A gnarled tree twisted in the heart
makes of the tongue a dry leaf.

Winter night.
A pair of shivering blackbirds
perches in the throat.

The moon drifts behind the eyes,
drowns the family in darkness.

Father Time
Some fathers
have no sons.

Blood seeking wounds.

Ghost Fathers
A son can't sleep.

There is a light in the corner of the room.
A liquid light
dripping from the ceiling.

"What do you want?" the son asks.

The light drips.
It just drips.

He places a bowl beneath the light.
He stays awake all night watching the light
drip into the bowl. It just drips.

In the morning he finds the bowl filled
with clear warm water,
and shaves with it.

Fathers Dancing in the Moonlight
Fathers dancing in the moonlight.
Sad fathers. Horny fathers.

Bone weary, grief dancing fathers
while their families sleep.

Fathers whose wives
turn at night to the wall,
who have sired flea-brained sons,

whose hearts turn on them
like ungrateful children.
Fields of fathers swaying like flowers.


Acknowledgment is made to the following publications in which some of these poems first appeared: Art of Survival, Fire Exit, Green House, Iowa Review, Northwest Review, Poetry Northwest, Poetry Now, South Dakota Review, Third Rail.

"Variations on China" appeared in Making Body Glue published by Christopher Books.

"The Day" appeared in a limited edition published by Golem Press.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Seiler, Barry.
Retaining wall.

1. Title.
PS3569. E535R4 811'. 5'4 79-12883

Publication of this volume was made possible in part through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal Agency.

L'Epervier Press
1219 E. Laurel
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