Willis Barnstone: In the 84th Year of Residence on Earth

Willis Barnstone (right) walking with his friend, the poet Jorge Luis Borges, in Buenos Aires in 1975. Photo courtesy of Barnstone and Wikimedia Commons.Willis Barnstone is best known as a translator—as in the case of his new Poems of Jesus Christ, which we are recommending this week. ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm was so moved by the fresh and artful rendering of Jesus’ sayings in this new volume that he scheduled our weekly author interview with Barnstone.

When Crumm called Barnstone, the poet and translator cheerily began the conversation by pointing out that, although he had been in the midst of composing a new poem, this was indeed a good time to do an interview. After Crumm expressed surprise and offered to delay the call, Barnstone insisted that this was simply the way he worked—always writing, always in the middle of some project.

After the two hit it off in their interview, Barnstone emailed ReadTheSpirit’s home office a couple of hours later with the finished poem—the completed version of the text he had started while contemplating the looming telephone interview.

Barnstone’s email explained: “I was writing a poem when I picked up the phone—never mind interruptions, helps the mind to keep going down below. I had written the first lines, but I knew the poem was not finished. As soon as we hung up, I added the last lines. I think of this one as our poem. Hope it works. Somehow, it has to do with some of the things we were talking about. Willis.”

Then, an hour later, he emailed again with the following, finished version of the poem, making a number of key changes since the original emailed version. “This shows you how I work. It really was exactly the same process in doing the poems of Jesus Christ.”

So, here is Willis Barnstone’s new poem, a reflection on themes we are exploring this week in our coverage of his latest book.

In the 84th Year of Residence on Earth

By Willis Barnstone

When I consider how my life is spent,
Rocked here and there by vile stupidity,
I wake from tons of shame and don’t repent

The worst or best in me. Felicity
Should be my flag. Milton, my guide, was dead
At sixty-five, blind, scorned, saved by Marvell

When every monarchist wanted his head
Dumped in a pit. My body-mind is well
And tricks the clock. How dare I think remorse?

Is bitching a right? Yes, but not my right.
As long as earth is round, I’m like a horse
Following insane commands to work

And work without regret and go berserk
Locked in a basement deprived of all light,
Or best, sit in the sun, first dawn in Greece,

War dotting hills, the sea Homeric grapes,
Islands, old metaphors for droplets of peace
After decades of slaughter, marble shapes

Entering ink of poets, years I greet
As clearly as an Oakland riot, London
Milk bottles breaking on a foggy street.

When I consider how my life has spun
My threading cape of creativity,
In dark night sun forces the heart to run.


Read our coverage of Willis Barnstone’s The Poems of Jesus Christ.
And: Come back later this week for our interview.


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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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