John Wall Barger’s poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Rattle, The Cincinnati Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His fourth book, The Mean Game, is coming out with Palimpsest Press in spring 2019. He grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and is currently an editor for Painted Bride Quarterly.

  • John Wall Barger

Urgent Message from the Captain of the Unicorn Hunters



Release them. Those sealed in your attics.

Those chained in your barns. Those on the nightmare yokes.

Those heads on your walls. This is our fault.

We taught you to torture the unicorn.

That it biteth like a lion & kicketh like a horse. 

That it has no fear of iron weapons. 

That unicorn-leather boots ensure sound legs 

& protection from plague. That unicorn liver (with a paste 

of egg yolk) heals leprosy. That its tusk,

ground to dust, makes men hard. Forget all that. 

Taxidermists, lay down your saws. 

Keep off, ye farmers of dreams & horns. 

We have done enough. Baiting them with our virgins.

Cutting the heads off the calves & their mothers. 

Planting birthday candles in their eyes.

Fortune-telling with their gizzards.

Tossing their balls to the dogs. —Enough! 

Free them to bathe in our rainbows. 

Let them loose in their fields of sorrow. 

Enough have they tholed. And you’ll have to forgive:

nothing that’s happened as yet

has prepared me for this. I have taken us too far 

off course. Abominations, treason! 

It’s up to them now, our lot. 

First, let them go. And then we wait.

Your Suitors



Like fast clouds they creep in.

They seem to know where you are headed,

like family dogs. They storm the restaurant where we eat

wearing coffee cups & legs of lamb. 

Do your suitors ever sleep? They seem to wake up 

drunk. They withdraw as one, like deer. As if running for a bus

but there is no bus. All speaking at once

like a suicidal teen. Your suitors form a hanging wall 

around your beauty. On street corners they slouch, 

hardly breathing. They fog in like sharks

to our corner of the party. They shark in like fog, as if dancing

but they are not dancing. As if drowning.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change a thing. 

At karaoke they are lovely. Kind, even. 

They anticipate your joy as if they’d loved you 

an eternity. Even as you fall on me 

I feel their proximity. That they too are naked. 

As naked as that tree across the street, before a snowstorm. 

That maple which is probably dying. 

Ash Baptism



I was nine when the ash 

drifted to our flatlands 

like a mountain. 

Our farms stood on hind legs,

staggered to the coast. 

We stayed, eating our bellies out. 

Shooting cattle, landholders. 

Living inside the ash, 

the cave of it. Citizens of it, 

believers. Father, 

thinking as it thought, 

chewed dead grass 

in the yard. Father bleated. 

Mother squatted naked in the road. 

Mother cawed. 

Ash a church in the sky. 

We hacked out prayers 

on the rocks & trees of it, 

delivered from the bondage of the sun 

& its unchaste burning. 

Ash galloped off 

with our small ones

to the afterworld. We offered it 

everything. On the Sabbath, 

starving, staggering, 

I held forth my last Twinkie 

to the swirling. 

There came a wind, 

shapes. A black spark, 

an inkling—past & future among 

like fallen statuary.

The monkeys stood

waist-deep. The largest, 

The Grand Seigneur, 

wore a sleazy grin.

Eyes gray, mouth gray.

“Let every living soul 

prosper,” he grunted. 

“The Twinkie in your claw,”

I said, “is that the soul?”

He placed his bloodflecked crown 

on my head. “All hail  

boy-king,” he muttered, 

grinning, in the ash.


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