Richard Gordon Barnes, was born November 5, in the autumn of 1932 in San Bernardino, California. He was reared in a Mohave Desert dust-devil that seemed to continue to revolve in his eyes, even after a barnacle of a year at Harvard, then coming back to earn his PHD from Claremont Graduate School. He then went on to serve 40 years as a professor at the revered Pomona College in Claremont California, specializing there in bringing Medieval and Renaissance literature to life. He accomplished all of this while raising a family, while at night constructing poems with a tinker’s fervor, and on top of all that playing the washboard with thimbles in a cosmic New Orleans jazz ensemble. To read his poetry for yourself was to understand that he had all the angels of literature cantankerously looking over his shoulder. So strong a presence that even if you didn’t believe in such balderdash, they were still there. When following my own artistic process where and when I follow an opportunity to archive a work of just importance, I do so exactly as I scribe a song, or as I concoct a dinner driven by the memory haze of forthcoming aromas. I have inherent in me a deep seeded need to correct what appear to me as faulty patterns, albeit in words or in a poet’s career, those that arrive before me as self-educated apparitions. Non-ego selfishness if you will.
I arrived for the first time at 434 W. 7th St. in Claremont CA, to the Barnes 1920’s era craftsman domicile, feeling as if I were on a soldiery mission. Me wide eyed with a PT 109-gray digital recording device under my wing, pushed from the back by those aforementioned angels perchance, to document the poetics of this salty long-time lyric sage of the San Gabriels. My wife and I had, just a few weeks prior, gone out into the Pomona night’s attempt at starlight to attend a gathering and to hear Barnes read at a fringe neo-beat holdout called The Da Gallery. I had just recently heard of his terminal illness and was surprised as to how he looked as regal and handsome as I had ever seen him. Death’s little joke I now suppose. The wooden floored space had no sound system and even though we sat in the front row I was ill to hear a good percentage of the important words I supposed he spoke, and as is important to me, the all-telling tone in his voice was robbed, refreshing my memory as to why I seldom go out anymore. It’s the robbery. We chatted afterwards, him and I, over tilted plastic beakers of somber tinted wine and I bought a copy of his book Few and Far Between from his grasp for my collection.
It was of course like the strike of a ball-peen realization, when he informed me that he had never really been recorded, in response to my missing, in the blind acoustics of the room, the musical timber of his inspired back-lot poetics. And so it was, for the next year that I compiled below the creaking rafters of that craftsman, it sounding as I imagined the mayflower arriving, the most precious lessons of my life, his life in vocal formula. Thin tortoise spectacles, hair slicked back, tough hombre in a casket soft recliner, and notes and poems pulled from every which direction like a magic act. With a devilish bottle of Glenlevit single malt on the tabletop before us I turned the recorder until its two little red eyes lit, and in the seminal fluid of the headphones I watched as fate took over for me and handed me, outside of my control, a most cherished mentor program. A grail to be shared by many, yet spoken directly to me, and like a good tamale there engulfed in the masa-harina of tales from San Bernardino, all the way to the motor courts and lava beds of Barstow. You tend to just want to blow on by such occasions as this, with their transmissions of information deep enough to test what you ponder as the capacity of your fuse box.
For him as a thought and as a human being, the tears could restore the Owens Valley, or rekindle spirituality just so that you could call him up for some firsthand knowlage about the paved-over aspects of our dusty inland empire. Like Borges at a cockfight his eyes still light up in my mind, reminding us that death is perhaps a much slower fade than we think, as we might live on in the remaining minds, perhaps for a good time after, profound or no profound. The last time I talked to him I had just come from Hollywood where I was visiting with long time friend Stuart Duncan and his momentary boss Lyle Lovett, and it impressed upon me then of the diametrical sameness between these personages of fame and their humble counter part in the death bed before me. I showed Dick the artwork that I had just completed for an eight volume CD set of his recorded work, which he had wanted to leave for all of his friends. The CD cover images were culled from some hand sketched sparse portraits he did of his favorite plant, the desert creosote, the dominant flora of the Mohave. In the room with us were his wife Pat, artists Carl Hertel, his daughter Katy Hertel (her step mother was the famed painter Sue Hertel), and Dick’s daughter Sarah. Things were spinning around in the air of that room as molecules were confusing each other in a “not in Kansas anymore” fashion. It was all big and it was all deep, with much space in between the lines to think, basically it was another one of Dick Barnes’ poems come to life. So, the elephant in the room is, “Why is it that Dick Barnes is not a more famous poet on the world stage?” Him being so far beyond the acres of celebrated mere-mortals spewing wooden stanzas. The simple answer is that “Dick Barnes writes far better than most people can read”. The age-old problem being, bullet-starring your children in the eyes, that they, the banks, don’t understand the currency of “being ahead of your time”.
Real art is that which splays your life out before you, contains the uncontainable, and gives you something to chew on for the rest of your days, numbered as they are pocked by mystery. I piled my recording equipment back into the boot of my sawdust-colored Caprice Classic, it faithfully waiting at the Barnes curb, for the last time in March of the year 2000, pulling our way slowly past parading elms and Rasta-headed palms on route back to my home, below a crown of emaciated clouds, two towns over, in Upland. I’ll have to admit that it is here in the sincerity of solitude, that I don’t as much wait for the return of Dick Barnes as I do every day live in the shear idea of it. It remains that un-stealable and heart-warming element which I give thanks that we all privately own.
Patrick Brayer (Upland, California) This article was originally written in summer 2002 but was re-edited in 2021
Granite Intrusive by Dick Barnes
Where the clean wind scours the rock—
sun like a hammer, ice the other season—
there’s the life, said the lichen,
that’s the life for me.
I’m so glad we found this place
murmured the moss
before the tourists came.
Root of a palo blanco
in thin bark like white paper
crept down over bare rock:
I like a place that’s been spoiled
just enough, said the root, snuggling in.
The rock didn’t say anything at all.
Why would it?
Alluvium: A Reply by Dick Barnes
Somewhere two rivers rush together at the foot of a scarp,
meander over a coastal plateau, then down a barranca
the rio caudal plunges into its deep estuary
and huge canyons under the sea. But here
on this nearly level delta wide as the eye can see
streams mingle and separate, some sweet, some brack
some sink under their own silt, are lost in the arrowweed
where a curve of current earlier carved the bank
some dwindle down sloughs under poplar or willow,
the heron’s home, some into quicksand, and
nothing is turning out the way you thought it would be,
Doomsday by Jorge Luis Borges
It will be when the trumpet sounds, as in St. John the Divine.
It was already in 1757, according to the witness of Swedenborg.
It was in Israel when the she-wolf nailed the flesh of Christ to the
cross, but not only then.
It happens in every throb of your blood.
There is no moment that may not be the crater of Hell.
There is no moment that may not be the water of Heaven.
There is no moment not loaded like a gun.
In every moment you may be Cain or Siddartha, the mask or the
In every moment Helen of Troy may reveal her passion for you.
In every moment the cock may have crowed the third time.
In every moment the waterclock lets its last drop fall.
(Translated from the Spanish by Dick Barnes)