Poet's Choice: 'Elegy with a Mute Bell' by Brian Barker

By Brian Barker
Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Elegy with a Mute Bell" began in a workshop taught by Edward Hirsch at the University of Houston where I was a graduate student. The assignment was to write a poem that addressed the notion of form -- poetic or other -- in some way. At the time, I had been thinking about the relationship between form and function, between form and the essence of a thing. What happens when something loses its form? Does it cease to exist? Does it continue on as a figment of its former self, or does it become something else entirely? If the latter, how much is the new thing dependent on human will or imagination? These are large, abstract questions that are grounded in this poem in one object: a clapperless bell that I took as a keepsake from my great-grandmother's house after her death.

At least, I thought the questions were grounded in the bell. The surprise of the poem -- for me at the time of composition and, I hope, for the reader -- is the imaginative leap in the second section of the poem. Here the questions take on an emotional weight as they address the human form, the body and its inevitable diminishment.

The poem is an elegy, but in rereading it, I can't help but think of it as a statement about poetry itself. Form in the world breaks down, but poetry pushes back against this transience of being. It makes palpable again everything we lose to the unyielding forces of time.

(Editor's note: To see this poem laid out correctly on paper or on your screen, click the Print button in the Toolbox.)

Elegy with a Mute Bell -- in memory of C.M.L., 1899-1982


This is what I've chosen

to remember her by. Not her cabinets

of chipped china, or shelves of porcelain


bric-a-brac, or boxes of empty snuff tins,

but a small bell. The carved handle painted

green, and where the green has given way


to the pinch of fingertips, worn by oil

and salt, the wood shines, rubbed

to a sheen of blackened honey.


Its mouth, once a polished silver, is now

mottled with rust, the deep umber

of a softening pear, and when I lift it


only the lip-scrape and hollow clink

of the clapperless tongue: a corroded wire clip

plumbing the bell's vaulted dark.


Imagine what she must have thought

when she picked it up during the night

to beckon the nurse, expecting the perfect


high-toned pitch to shimmer over the sound

of the rain dripping from the eaves.

What she must have thought when the bell


let go of its lead bob, and it fell

for the first time since being drop forged,

hitting the pine floor and rolling --


not the slow, measured roll of the marbles

she played as a girl, but syncopated, skipping,

wobbled by the soldered eyelet --


into a black abyss of safety pins and dust.

What she must have thought when she caught

herself still waving the mute bell like a wand


and knew she was also disappearing, her body

receding into itself, slipping behind her clavicle,

her rib cage, into unseen fissures of light.


It rests on my windowsill, unrung,

yet upright in its silence. I'm certain

if I lifted it, its absence would be marked


on the sill, a black ring, an imprint in the paint.

A bell in form? Yes, but something else,

memory's icon or monument. Or a prop


on a stage, the backdrop this: late afternoon,

the sun's gold delirium against the glass,

the tiger lilies bowing their orange-cowled heads;


the trellis brocaded with roses, and skirting the fence,

a bramble of blackberries, the ripe fruit glistening

like the small things we lose everyday


made palpable again. Starlings swoop from the maple,

snatch the berries, return to their claver and chaos.

They appear iridescent, fat, the berries hardening


in their bellies like ballast. Without warning,

the conclave rises, veers, scatters. They go silent,

grow dark as ink, and before disappearing,


tumble in failed shapes across the sky.

From Brian Barker's first book of poems, "The Animal Gospels" (Tupelo Press, 2006). He teaches at the University of Colorado-Denver where he co-edits Copper Nickel

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company