Reflections on a Swan

— Barbara Saxton


A swan’s reflection: regal, unreal,
mute elegance worth twenty measly mallards
or a dozen lesser egrets. Alone, aloof–
he skims the lake’s still mirror, a bulging wake
broadcasting cygnet symmetry.

Beauty, peace and purity swim near,
but my mind breast-strokes beyond all that
to Leda and her misogynist Zeus-bird.
I feel him clamp his snaky neck
around his female prey, clasp her roughly
to his torso with enormous pearl-hued wings,
then rape her, while cruel moonlight shoots
its brilliant silver on still water.

A turn-on, to be sure! But strange and violent passion
also frightens and appalls. Billowing white feathers,
well-toned body, fearsome black beak, strapping legs,
all orchestrated for loathsome seduction, trumpeting:
When you’re a star,
you can do anything you want!

Beware to all who dare to dip
a shapely toe in this Swan’s Lake.


— Barbara Saxton


How I wish it would rain–
buckets and rivers and seas:
all this confounded sun, this fair air
so unseemly.

Make no mistake: The world changed
overnight. Or maybe trapped rats
started stinking more openly,
our best BandAids overwhelmed
by the pus of long-festering sores. 

Oh, you want “real change,” do you?
You think careless throws
of the dice at casino felt tables
will actually help you? You crave apology,
need compensation…for what grievance, exactly?
Have you been enslaved, unjustly deported,
profiled, perhaps groped by your boss?
Is it our fault you chose to stay on board
leaky ships that were already sinking?

Do you think demi-gods, knights
in rusty brown armor will save you?
I’ve seen you, back-slapping each other
and crowing in red baseball hats.
But guess what? He only wanted to win,
then feather his comb-over cap
with the tears of our children.

God, why doesn’t it rain? Maybe I’ll go out
in the sunlight to plant late fall seedlings.
Sugar peas will shoot up from the soil in a week,
as if nothing has happened.  

My harvest feeds needs
for the simplest solutions. 

Butoh Dancer

— Barbara Saxton

Clothed in little but tattoos, dusky faint

beneath white powder, like continents

viewed from above through swirls of cloud,

wrapped in penitent’s brown burlap,

beige codpiece held in place by braided rope,

the butoh figure crouched — feline, intent —

just listening and preening, while bowed gongs,

twirling teacups on taut drum skins, sonorous bells

called him to dance.
His restless, hairless body, double-dusted

in white paint and powder, one scarlet smudge

of paint over his open mouth, slowly stood upright.

Lines drawn around his eyes grew darker

as the orbs themselves rolled back. Wide holes

where earlobes used to be formed question marks

on either side of his bald head.
Would merely watching him

provide much-needed answers?
Eyes beg him to dance closer, while lips

warn mutely: Keep your distance.

He is the dead and living, or something in between,

defined by music’s power to transform.

Everyone who loved and left us has returned

in this seductive, writhing package.
We’re safest when he’s seated on the floor,

pale legs akimbo, arms and fingers wrapped

around his head, trapping love and terror in,

reflecting nothing back at us.
Eventually, the so-called music stops.

Our dancer leaves. Outside the hushed room,

a door latch quietly clicks shut.


Fossil Heart

— Barbara Saxton

for Angel

We take hands, move to music
both ancient and new. In the crowd,
many friends, some just known
by the feel of their hands–
smooth as baby bird heads
or calloused as deer hooves;
warm as fresh applesauce,
cold as night stars.

Social media told me that Angel
had died, and I tried to remember:
what did her hands feel like?
Had I hugged her that last time,
or rushed to my car, saying nothing at all?

My heart is a fossil, with imprints
of lovers or friends who once graced
its clay surface. I join in life’s dance,
but my hands sometimes grasp empty air.
My mind reads sheet music with dissonant notes,
and my feet mimic pieces of stone.



— Barbara Saxton

Scattered like leaves over national borders.
Unwelcome at home, distrusted abroad.

Get out of your vehicle.
Wait! Stand over there! Papers?
No papers?. Exit one life,
shuffle into another. Vault over
barbed wire to stateless existence.

More than twelve million souls
ooze bloodlike out of Syria.
They squat beneath tarps
on Anatolian slopes, pick tomatoes
for pennies in Jordan’s hot fields.
Ragged children’s hard eyes
appraise journalists’ movements.

Thirteen-year-old daughters
are sold into slavery. In Lebanon,
two women’s skeletons lie
curled up together in the kitchen
of a grand mud-brick palace.

History shakes underfoot, waking
from refugee nightmares. In the camps,
tents glow yellow, like new constellations.

Huge columns of ants crawl
across yellow grass, shining black,
as if oiled, then vanish down holes,
bearing thousands of seeds.

After false Arab Spring,
a hard winter arrives.


Writing Away Tears

— Barbara Saxton

The Bay Bridge’s tall towers dissolve
in thick fog while we lunch on udon,
teriyaki, tempura–coaxing meddlesome topics
to the edge of our plates
with blond wooden chopsticks.

I paid the bill as you biked off
down Market, rushing to share
secrets to the tune of a therapist’s
loud ticking meter.

After you left, I boarded the N-Judah
streetcar, traversing your City in clanky torpidity
to the Ocean Beach endpoint.
There, standing alone on wet sand,
I conjured cool, content strangers
on the far shores of vastness.
I cannot write away tears,
or halt the flow of wicked time.

You rode away; so did I.
Each in different directions.


For Nez

— Barbara Saxton

We dance to rhythms some find strange,
hold hands just tight enough to guide,
but never squeeze. We let our neighbors know:
we’re with you, and yes,
our music is the same.
Sometimes we drape our arms
around each others’ shoulders, or hook elbows,
crossing hands in front of bellies
warm and round from potluck meals.

When someone long a member
of our line — one who pressed
our hands in joyful greeting, his mustache
sometimes tickling as it brushed
against our cheeks, eyes twinkling
to the tempo of beloved tunes —
when that person’s final dance
is done, and earthbound music stops for him,
we feel this loss so keenly. Hesitation steps
last heartbeats longer. Footfalls land
a bit more heavily, much as we’d love to celebrate
his memory in circular perfection.

Out of our eyes’ wet corners, we watch
his widow, dancing with her head
held high, as lovely as she looked to him
for decades, when he fell in love
the first time, every time.

Artificial Intelligence

— Barbara Saxton

This is where it used to be,
he said, staring at an online map.
Where what was? she replied,
in that special voice reserved for times
he didn’t have her full attention.

Portola Pastures, he continued.
Where the old A-I lab stood.
Suddenly, her mind awoke, leapfrogging
back some forty years,
amazed a dumpy horse farm drive
she thought he’d entered by mistake
was once the portal to bits and bytes
of cutting edge research, done on machines
the size of master bedrooms.

She’d ventured up that drive
so many times, back when she rode
wherever smart men with cars
would take her.

Those days, she needed much less sleep.
At midnight, even after hours of pravos,
kolos, waltzes, no one felt too tired
to play at Space Wars, or her favorite:
a cutthroat game of Hearts.

Around the table, geniuses faced off.
Some counted cards; she counted on
bold instinct and cold guile.
Dealt the right hand, those sometimes
proved enough to shoot the moon,
or barring that, forcing some nerd
to take the dreaded Bitch.

Puente del Inca

— Barbara Saxton

Bright mustard sulphur:
this natural rock bridge,
whose surreal appeal
delighted the likes
of Charles Darwin.

Gleaming icicle teeth
drool their sparkling teardrops
into clear thermal pools.

A centuries-old route over Rio Cuevas,
for Incas guiding their herds
past Cerra Aconcagua to Mendoza’s
wide valley below.

Listen closely: the condors are circling above
this slippery stone orifice, screaming
their warning of smallpox, typhus…oblivion,
to travelers too ancient to benefit
from pale green healing stones
being hawked in the tourist-fed grottos
that wind through steep walls
of pure snow.

Locked Down

— Barbara Saxton

This is not a drill. Repeat:
This is NOT a drill.
Teachers, lock your doors.
Close your mini-blinds.
Block entryways with cabinets or shelves.
Collect all cellphones (And good luck with that!)
We’ve been informed
a shooter is on campus.

Holy fucking shit! Christ, no!
Holden Caulfield’s drink-fueled angst
cannot compete with this!
First instinct: Run like hell! Escape!
But duty drives my trembling hand
to click the classroom’s Columbine lock,
trapping us inside. I creep around on all fours,
helping halfbacks wedge their hefty selves
beneath the small sled desks.

Eternities of nervous waiting start
and, for a while, sheer shock
keeps the students quiet, until novelty
wears thin and the first unbidden fart
dissolves the silence into titters.
You’re gonna get us killed!
a young nerd hisses, precipitating giggles, snorts
and whines. Students trade whispered
bits of trivia: how many wads of gum
are under your desk? I counted thirty!
Is that a booger,
or a fossilized Milk Dud?

Taciturn administrators seem to have forgotten us.
Meanwhile, every hallway sound
elicits tiny yips and cries. One girl crouching
near a window thinks she hears
some tapping on the pane. She whimpers,
seeking comfort I’ve forgotten how to give.

Am I really going to die
beneath a table littered
with C+ essays on
The Catcher in the Rye?

In dreams, I’m lurching down the hall
intent on tackling our assassin, bloodying
his ugly nose, then flinging his revolver
at the glass Sports Trophy Case! Applause erupts
as my posterior plumps down on his chest pack
of undetonated bombs.

For fifteen year olds, ten minutes
last a year. Half an hour beneath a dirty desk
is an eternity. The spark our brush with death inspired
cannot be fanned to full-on terror fire.
New mutterings reveal the new class goal:
to liberate their cell phones
from the top drawer of my desk!

They’d rather go down texting.
JD Salinger would’ve SO approved…

Before classroom mutiny can prevail,
the PA crackles once again to life.
False alarm, a counselor
(whose name always escapes me) squawks.
Someone phoned a hoax.

Class dismissed! Some nervous cheers
go up, and reunited with beloved phones,
students storm the unlocked doors.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss
the most important thing we learned
within these walls all year:

Together, we survived.

Root Canal

— Barbara Saxton

Snip. Gouge.
Dry the dead canal.
Kill pain. Chop limb:
the tree survives.

Last night I woke
to the dream knock of intruders
who stormed my brain’s gate
through a bicuspid’s open portal.

My finger grazed sponge enamel:
a throbbing bath toy
one might grab and yank out
from its tub of molten pain.

Dental Mercy Goddess,
focus your magic scope
on misery’s epicenter:
extract the pesky nerve!

I leave with nothing floating
in a vial that might have joined
my growing trophy shelf
of warrior memories.


— Barbara Saxton

(Lyrics only–this was sung by the poet at open mic 2/19/15)

At sunset, and after quite a few beers,
we know what life’s all about: a seed, an egg,
that find each other, share their love
then start to smother, mercenaries
in a plastic army.

Then the earth begins to bulge
and breasts become blue marble.
What have we here that wasn’t there before?
Then the belly’s empty, the breasts
no longer sore and she’s in a room
preparing to be poor, Kleenex
for company.

It’s life, that’s all it is,
all together or apart. We’ve seen
our dreams go down the drain,
fought back, or wallowed in the pain,
but after all, what will remain
except the love within our hearts?

Like some poor Demosthenes,
stamm’ring speeches at the ocean.
Nieces, nephews, children of friends
fill a void, but then again, follow footsteps
in the sand to a life’s
torn, empty page.

A mistake, that’s all it was.
Well done, and paid for. Right-to-lifers,
may it rain on your parade.
Hell of a mother
I would have made! My heart’s a garden
where a child can play
in immortality.

A life,
that’s all it was…

In and Out Burghers (of Calais)

—Barbara Saxton

“I will give 99 percent, but the other 1 percent is way more than enough… I have never given a dollar that caused me to give up something I wanted to buy.” –Warren Buffett
“To not be able to house our people in the richest place in the world at the richest time in its history shows us that something’s completely broken about our city.” — Sandy Perry, San Jose Housing Advocate

Six rich dudes wore the English king’s chains,
offered their necks to an enemy noose,
relinquished the keys to a gleaming French village,
were paraded, half-naked, so their lessers
might live.

Despite the clear stench of political spin
(you see, Eustache de San Pierre and his cronies
would be ultimately spared by the Queen’s
kind reprieve), Rodin still caught
a vision we’d not see today: Scions of Industry,
stars of “What the boss makes” would balk
at being force-marched down Madison Avenue
barely clothed, shackled together like so much
prize livestock.

Buffett boasted he could donate nearly all
his vast fortune, yet want for nothing.

How would a modern-day Rodin sculpt
homeless folks forced from campsites
in San Jose’s Jungle, dragging belongings
through ankle-deep mud, headed nowhere in particular,
seeking shelter from the elements
in this, the richest time and place
in our inhuman history?

Wintry Thoughts

—Barbara Saxton

I do not like storms.
Their outpourings, vast and unfriendly
excessively strong, as if the whole sky,
grown mad from the drought, unleashed
its catharsis on the parched land below.

I don’t like wind, either.
All manner of objects, some really heavy,
careen toward me in fast-forward dreams.
I’m pressed to wet ground,
howling mute, unheard cries.

I do not like winter.
Whoever claimed candles can banish the darkness
was lying! Tree trunks stand stained
an oily deep brown, leaves and needles
turned olive and shiny. I hear ants underground,
plotting mass invasions
of kitchen and pantry.

I do not like waiting.
Spring seems so far away. Meanwhile,
I must hunker down, dressed in bulky wool layers,
tromp through puddles
in heavy rain boots, then fondly recall
how my scantier-clothed self
cycled down sun-drenched hills
on Ionian isles, a warm breeze draped around
my tan shoulders, turquoise sea
to my right, wintry thoughts
left behind.

Venus’ Intransigence

— Barbara Saxton

Click shut the latch.
Spurn his offers of coffee
or pitiful pastry. Ignore snarky-smiled
query: You OK to drive?

T-straps dangling down
from two talented digits, tired body
poured back into cinnamon sheath still reeking
of smoke and stale sex, I trolled
the underground garage for signs
of my ’66 Volvo, found it parked
near a puddle of watery oil, flat
and lusterless as last evening’s
sad, gin-fueled wit.

Lives left far, far behind us rear up
at odd moments. I should have stayed home
that June day, not traipsed off to NASA
to witness firsthand a phenomenon touted
as one of astronomy’s rarest events.

That morning, Venus herself overslept,
delaying her usual, more dignified, departure
from a strange god’s apartment. She dallied
till mid-afternoon, only to stumble, dazed and hung over,
smack into an array of huge lenses and telescopes,
trained on her utter mortification.

One look, and I deeply regretted
joining throngs gathered to view
a Goddess’ slow shameful transit.
Venus looked less like Botticelli’s clam bombshell
and more like a dark pokey mole
creeping across Helios’ smirking orange face.

Venus, I’ll friend you on Facebook and beg
your forgiveness for succumbing
to scientists’ seductions! Given hundreds of lifetimes,
I’ll waste not one more helping nerds celebrate
your celestial humiliation.

Someone Else’s War

— Barbara Saxton

Church bells rang out in the Netherlands.
Planes carrying forty wooden coffins
taxied to sorrowful gates filled with friends,
spouses, relatives, waiting to claim
what remained of loved ones
who had rotting for days on a field in Ukraine:
victims of someone else’s war.

Forty coffins and hearses. Dutch flags
at half-staff. Young Bryce and his Daisy’s
eternal honeymoon. AIDS researchers destined
to save no more lives.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, rebels unfazed
by someone else’s tragedy fought hard
to hold onto the doomed jet’s resting place.
Thousands of miles West, in Gaza,
the death toll topped seven hundred,
many of them children, as ceasefire pacts
exploded, like schools, churches
and hope.

The newspaper that landed
in my safe suburban driveway
seemed heavier than usual today.
When I opened its pages, innocent souls
fluttered out into another perfect California
summer day.

Swinging Sonnet

— Barbara Saxton

The dance devoid of danger is a bore.
A woman wants to partner with a man
whose lead is strong, whose hold is kind but sure;
who transports her to lands no one else can.

You take my hand, I feel your fingers fall
on muscles in my back that crave this touch.
I’m ready to respond to any call,
resistance beating back, but not too much.

If stronger, you might slam me to the floor,
pummel my flanks with your black pointed boot.
The threat of harm excites me even more;
I follow leads, yet prance in hot pursuit.

As in all things, the goal is not to cling.
Treat each dance as a brief melodic fling.

Consigning Mother’s Ring

— Barbara Saxton

It shouldn’t have been willed to me. I’m not
an emerald and baguette diamond girl;
I’m set in steel, not platinum.

Technically a dinner ring, we knew it
as a form of circular apology
for cocktail hour abuse; payment in advance
for dessert wines served
with purple bruises.

For twenty-three long years,
I kept it tucked away in an emotionally
distant drawer.

But my sister’s house needs a new roof,
and something good should finally come
of all that ostentatious glinting.

Before I left the jewelry store, I kissed the gems
that once adorned a hand now far beyond
her daughter’s loving grasp.

Daze without Poetry

— Barbara Saxton

Here’s to all poems
that never get written! Bullets
artlessly dodged, quivered arrows
un-lodged in my targeted soul,
pock-marked past recognition
by lyrical scrimmages.

Here’s to prancing in place
on my calloused numb hooves,
past Sylvia’s warm still-seductive gas oven,
loitering in safe harbors, as I curse fools
booking passage on Arthur’s
doomed vessels.

Here’s to bland summer days
spent averting my gaze
from despair’s wriggling bait,
pen-gun fully charged
with metaphorical blanks.

If you need me, I’m home,
pinning sunflower swags to the windows
of life’s transparent aquarium.
Curtains that block out blank stares
of those silver sardines,
whose swift dartings belie
neither purpose nor wit.

Here’s to years, decades, centuries
of limited output, freeing up time
to smugly admire my bare walls
stained with Congenial Cream
and Swiss Coffee accents, and ignore
the scuffed baseboards of tired, messy memories.

Here’s to hand-written notes
to Foothill Disposal, demanding
immediate pick-up of my excess
emotional baggage.

Sound Tracks

— Barbara Saxton

Newborn hazel eyes
scan my face, silver lasers
radiating love and outrage
in equal measure.

How could I leave him,
freshly born, still scented
with birth fluids?

But it was my turn to slide
down spiral tunnels and bounce
off scarlet walls, my mind’s canoe
bobbed up, then down
my blood’s quick currents.

Rachel died like this, punished
for hiding her father’s strange idols.
She named her new son Ben of my mourning,
and bled out with his afterbirth.

I cried my son’s name
as they scraped my womb clean.
My tears formed blue oceans
he’d someday learn to cross.
My fists drummed steel gurney rails
to ancient rhythms apt for mimic
by the future’s
supple fingers.