Wendy Barker

April 24, 2016 Barker Wendy



I hadn’t yet recovered from a concussive first year teaching ninth-grade English

in West Berkeley, from ear-shattering shrieks,

“Mothuh Fuckin Honky Bitch” rattling

steel lockers, and here we were, on my first trip to my mother’s homeland, pulled up

in a rented Morris Mini at a gray stone, rose-trellised,

three-story house in Windsor. And here

they were, Dinnie and husband Jack in brown tweeds with their three grown kids

lined up by the arched entrance. I’d heard about Dinnie

for years, how, during the late thirties,

Mom lived with Dinnie’s family in Hong Kong where the cousins crooned a breathy

Andrews Sisters knock-off act for the fellows in

the Royal Navy. Now this silver-haired,

brogue-shod, square-shouldered woman was striding up to my mother, murmuring

“Pamela darling,” in a voice so exquisitely muted you

couldn’t have known they hadn’t seen

each other in thirty years. The two exchanged pristine pecks on the cheek. Luncheon

was a limp white fish with hand-picked peas from

the garden and boiled potatoes on

gold-rimmed white bone china, and the conversation perked along politely, like water

in a kettle just shy of a full boil. Asked about

the students I taught, I tried to

explain: a half mile from the Black Panthers’ headquarters, Telegraph Avenue, pimps,

Black Muslims, acid-dropping by the train tracks, but

then Penelope, Dinnie’s eldest, just

back from her posh au-pair gig in Provence, asked: ” What ever do you do about their

accents? They must be dreadful!” she moaned. I know

I came close to spitting a mouthful

of white potatoes onto the ivory linen table cloth and I’ve no memory of what

I said. Now I think of the way Mom, after sixty

years in the States, still fussed

about British accents that didn’t approach RP standards. And I couldn’t have told

that young woman almost my age that I’d spent years

trying to flatten the lilting upper-crust

British intonations I’d learned at my mother’s knee, and that I’d begun saying “How

ya doin,” and “Gimme five,” even grinning at

“Sheee-it, Man” coming from

the coaches at lunch. And I couldn’t have explained that, as we hustled our students

out of the building while hall guards searched for the bomb

reported in sombody’s locker, the need

to keep a lid on panic made grammar seem minor. I’ve been away from Berkeley

now as many years as Mom had lived in the States

before our lunch with Dinnie, and after

three decades in Texas, I know I drag out my vowels, multiplying dipthongs

into tripthongs. In fact, a friend in Brooklyn has

fondly mentioned my “soothing Southern

accent.” Mom would have been horrified. I’d like to see Penelope again. Both our

mothers are gone. I’ve heard her granddaughter ‘s dating

a guy from Jamaica who’s into trip hop.





My new friend was chuckling, saying she cracked up when I let fly

with the “f” word while speaking to an audience

of five-hundred because, she said, I look so “elegant, a class act,

a knockout.” I changed the subject. She doesn’t

get it. In the Bean family, I was the clumsy one, by sixth grade

inhabiting a close-to-six-foot, rib-protruding,

hunched-over frame, buck teeth in braces, wispy blonde hair, pale

bluish eyes. Called “Scarecrow” and “String Bean” by

other kids. “Boobless Bean,” my nickname in high school. And

with a regal-shouldered, chocolate-eyed, russet-haired

mother who modeled for the fashion pages of The Tucson Daily

Citizen. My brunette little sister: “the pretty one”:

began Flair Modeling School at fourteen. Those 1950s

Clairol ads: “Do blondes have more fun?” Not me—

I didn’t measure up. The time I brought my drawing of a girl

to show Daddy and his only comment was a clipped,

“She’s not very pretty.” Over my parents’ Old Fashioneds,

banter about women: “pert little nose, a shame

about her piano legs”; “good-hearted, but that horrendous

pitted skin.” Now the flesh of my arms droops

like crumpled silk. Yet my husband swears he loves

my bones. Once, when Mom was around my age,

she spoke of her granny Lilian Walker Graves, who sparkled

on the vaudeville stage. “I’ve told you she was

a beauty, simply stunning,” Mom said, adding that men tripped

on their shoe strings at the sight of her. “And my

own mother,” she went on, “had that same quality, just as I did,

and—as your little sister does,” she added,

looking at the ceiling. But then, the year before Mom died

in the retirement home, as I walked beside

her electric cart while she steered past wheelchairs and

walkers, a resident stopped us: “Why Pam,”

she gushed, “This daughter of yours—no one would question

you’re her mother! She looks just like you,

moves with your elegance, your grace.” Mom jerked upright

and sputtered, “She does?” and pressed her foot

on the accelerator, whizzing off. I had to run to keep up with her.

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.