Remedies for Vertigo

WordTech Communications, 2006
$17.00 (Cover illustration by Mike Sleadd)


Civilized Sacrifice


I have climbed the backs of gods too. It’s not so

strange, dressed in heavy coat and boots, hat

pulled down to the eyebrows, cheeks windburnt,

gloved fingers numb, and each brief breath prayed


upon, each step thrown onto the loose altar of stone.

Blinded by spires of light, I’ve looked away

as the unblemished blue splintered in all directions.

And I’ve backed away from the sheer


precipice, the infinite suddenly a fearful measure,

the way down to tundra and the jagged maze of

granite, leaving only a crevice in which to cower.

I’ve lain on the steep slopes of night under spruce,


wrapped against rain and cold, and watched clouds

explode in my face. Stark boughs reached

then sagged back in a sweeping, resolute silence.

I was shaken loose by thunder and lightning,


like the small girl, named Juanita by strangers.

She tumbled a hundred yards down

Nevado Ampato peak, her whereabouts unquestioned

for five hundred years until a nearby volcano


began a festering eruption, thawing the slope,

and wrapped in her illiclia shawl woven in the ancient

Cuzco tradition, wearing a toucan- and parrot-feathered

headdress, her frozen fetal posture a last effort


at warmth above tree line amid ice fields, there

to address and redress for rain and maize, for

full vats of fermenting beer, plentiful llama herds,

for the civilized sacrifice, to be buried alive and wait


in private, as we all do to speak with our gods, hoping

to appease, to know, to secure the illusive cosmic

machinery, and in that last numb moment her left

hand gripped her dress for the intervening centuries.


Minor Gods


Another roadside bomb, another suicide

bomber, another dozen blind-folded, hands-tied-

behind-the-back bodies found half buried at the town dump,

it’s how a Saturday explodes until I turn off

the radio and look out the east window at a tabby

crouched in explosive morning light and acting strangely.


I hurry outside to rescue an eight-inch long, pencil-thin,

ring-neck snake before it is playfully eviscerated.

A hundred yards into the woods, the palm heat

of cupped hands has pacified its coiled panic

and I scold it to be more careful before it calmly

slithers into a brush pile and into another ambush.


Balanced between two flood lights on the west wall,

phoebes again build a nest out of moss and spittle,

and I build a four-feet high fence on the ground below them.

They quickly abandon their efforts as if not understanding

what I’m trying to keep out and keep in. Occasionally,

I see their bobbing drab-gray tails on a nearby branch.


I leave the fence standing.  I blame the cats

without evidence of guilt.  Weeks later,

the phoebes return, the same pair or different,

I don’t know after so many seasons of failed attempts

on every wall of the house, including the black snake

that scaled ten feet of siding to eat the hatchlings.


From the kitchen window, I watch them fly back

and forth through the gauntlet of clawed hunger,

too early to know ends except this flying.

Either the gods are omnipotent and not good,

according to Epicurus, just look at this world, or they are

good and not omnipotent, look at these phoebes.


Remedies for Vertigo
Walter Bargen
Cherry Grove Collections
ISBN Number: 1-933456-40-X

Reviewer: James Owens

Books go in search of their right readers, and Walter Bargen’s poems are looking for readers who understand the need of giving them the time and space to deploy their often oblique verbal machinery. Bargen’s poems usually seem plainspoken on first reading, straightforward narratives of working life, reflections on history or encounters with animals, mostly birds, that verge towards an uneasy recognition of the danger inherent simply in being alive. The poems, however, open up to deeper associations and subtleties on second and third readings.

The first poem in the book, “Playing Chicken,” from a sequence titled “Experiments in Flight,” serves as a sort of half-ironic ars poetica , though ostensibly an anecdote about a farm boy sent to catch a chicken for dinner and forced to approach the wary bird slantwise, as Emily Dickinson says one should stalk the truth of a poem.

He must act
as if he were headed in another direction,
and only coincidentally walking past
toward the shed for a shovel or to the storm cellar
for potatoes, all the time edging ever-so-slightly
sideways while staring straight ahead, but really
watching from the corner of his eye, then springing
and bending in one scooping motion into his arms,
a squawking, flapping chicken….

By the time a reader gets to the sixth and last poem in this opening sequence, it is clear that Bargen is thinking about more than the roundabout ways of slipping up on a poem. In “Flying on Instruments,” a man tries to rescue a trapped bird that misunderstands his kind intent and attempts to escape through a “shed’s cobwebbed window, leaving dusk/ streaked with dust and stars.” In a clear echo of the earlier poem, the man approaches the bird and “fails/ at rescue before grabbing it with one hand/ rather than scooping with two.” The man carries the caught bird to the shed’s door for release into the night and is

by its weight, or lack of weight, and feels
uncertain how tight to hold a handful of air.
He steps from the door into the dark
and he almost doesn’t notice his empty hands.

Bargen is not a poet who resorts to the easy moral, but this “door into the dark” and the man surprised by his “empty hands” surely suggests something about the ambivalence of weighing action and the significance of action against the world’s tendencies towards destruction and chaos, especially as a reader moving through Remedies for Vertigo encounters other “fail[ures]/ to rescue.” People in these poems try to save baby birds from cats, small snakes and nesting phoebes from cats, bumblebees from a glass jar, a cat from cold weather and a fallen tree. The best these attempts can do is to succeed temporarily. An “eight-inch-long, pencil-thin/ ring-neck snake,” rescued just before it is “playfully eviscerated” by a cat, “slithers into a brush pile and into another ambush” (“Minor Gods”).

In the human world, people often seem in need of rescue that never comes. “Civilized Sacrifice” moves from the attraction of climbing mountains—”I have climbed the backs of gods”—to a portrait of an Inca girl found naturally mummified in the Andes, five hundred years after she tumbled down a rocky slope to wait

in private, as we all do to speak with our gods, hoping
to appease, to know, to secure the illusive cosmic
machinery, and in that last numb moment her left
hand gripped her dress for the intervening centuries.

“Photographing the Wind” brings the potential rescuer’s powerlessness in the face of human tragedy into the contemporary world in a particularly harrowing way. The poem starts calmly, far from disaster, “sitting on the porch” and enjoying “a wholly comfortable wind,/ tailored and too expensive for the end/ of a ragged century,” but the century’s dynamics of danger and damage intrude on this peaceful scene in the form of a photograph of an African child dying in a famine, while a vulture waits nearby for a meal. Photographs, to borrow from Susan Sontag, are problematic, implicating the viewer as consumer of the image, while rendering intervention impossible, and this photograph refuses to avert its gaze, the poem’s precision becoming a sort of penance for the speaker’s comfortable distance from pain.

The naked child has drawn her knees up
to her chest, her forehead pressed against
years of parched ground, her forearms
stretched forward and away from either side
of her thinning body, her back to the steadfast bird,
guardian of this warring, drought-stricken plain.

And there is nothing to be done. The speaker knows “the bird can’t be blamed./ This is simply what it knows best,” and all we are capable of is to

want to believe in a wind
such as this one crossing the porch,
that refuses to carry a cry or spread
the scent of finality, and instead braids
strands of warmth through the cool
of evening, between the spaces of outspread
fingers, our hands failed kites,
our lives falling through this luxurious air.

It is a pleasure to watch the way Bargen’s repeated returns to his thematic interests (others include flight versus falling, flight as longing for the sacred) develop the overall structure of Remedies for Vertigo , so that it is a book , not merely a group of poems that happened to find their way between the same end-papers.

Walter Bargen has quietly produced ten collections of highly achieved poetry during the past couple of decades, and Remedies for Vertigo may be his best. Readers who live with it long enough to grow a feel for the echoes between poems and for the music of Bargen’s voice—which underpins the book’s larger architecture—will be more than satisfied.
For those of you who are fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to have a copy of Remedies for Vertigo, you might find this review interesting.  No, I do not know this person and I did not pay to have this written. This review appears in , issue No. 38. 

Leave a Reply