Wendy Barker

On Delta Flight #2164 From JFK
April 25, 2020 Barker Wendy

I’m headed home from a stint at Long Island’s
Walt Whitman Birthplace, a day after
visiting Dickinson’s Amherst Homestead. With
her thread-laced fascicles, Emily liked
to see a train “lap the miles,” but at jet speed,
we’re hardly lapping. Along with Walt,
I find crowds “curious,” and, as an introvert
with an extrovert bent, I always want to
know everyone’s stories, since we’re all part of
the “eternal float of solution.” But right
now I’m jammed in a middle seat among 524
passengers, and the silent man on my left
drapes his hairy fingers over the armrest. His
thick head blocks the window. I’m hardly
floating. Whenever I’m in a plane, part of me
is stuck in 1947, not yet five, waving
to my sobbing grandma at La Guardia before
flying with my straight-backed mother
and toddling sister across the United States all
the way to Phoenix. Clouds rippled
beyond the window, billowing threads. But then
I didn’t see my East Coast grandma
for four years. The way she’d held me in her lap
while dropping stitches from her
rumpled knitting. Who was I without her blue
eyes meeting mine? Even now, whenever I
leave home, I fear I won’t return, will lose touch,
become “Nobody.” Maybe that’s why I’m
always bantering with strangers in our tangled
strands as we board and deplane. If they’re
chatting with me, I could be somebody. Yet I
must keep my own skin intact, and though
I wish, like Walt, I could be “loos’d of limits and
imaginary lines,” I must hold to a few
limits or I’d lose my whole self. “The Soul selects
her own Society,” says Dickinson, but
who am I in this crowd? Always, as Emily laments,
“the bewildering thread.” I need to fasten
my own threads the way warp strands on a wooden
loom are tightened, so the weave will hold.

Wendy Barker‘s seventh full-length collection of poems is Gloss (St. Julian Press, 2020). Her sixth collection, One Blackbird at a Time (BkMk Press, 2015), received the John Ciardi Prize. Her fifth chapbook is Shimmer (Glass Lyre Press, 2019). Other books include Far Out: Poems of the ’60s, (co-edited with Dave Parsons, Wings Press, 2016), Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002), and a selection of co-translations, Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (Braziller, 2001). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 2013.  Recipient of NEA and Rockefeller fellowships, she is the Pearl LeWinn Endowed Chair and Poet in Residence at UT San Antonio, where she has taught since 1982.