‘Wild Fennel’ and other poems by Tess Barry


I started out in western Pennsylvania hills
with wild raspberry and blackberry bushes
and my mother’s apple field.
Bread and ripe fruit and fresh milk.
My mother cleaned the carpet right off the floor.
My father was a Troy Hill boy who played piano
and smoked Pall Malls and drank whiskey.
He won my mother in a dance contest.
Who wouldn’t learn to jitterbug for a prize like her?
They took a train to Cape Cod for a honeymoon
and bought hats for their mothers.
They sailed all the way from the Cape to ten children.

My whole life has been ripe with wild fruit.
All the men I’ve loved had left feet. I was innocent
until I got myself a good pair of rain boots.
There is no point in wondering what I’ll come to.
With my first words I wrote my own path
straight to New York: all night accents, brick stoops.
I left there like a mad dog running free
like our Dusty who got himself killed down the street,
chasing the neighborhood boys. He ran smack into a fender.
We buried him up in the woods after a proper funeral.
No amount of experience can shake
the ripeness out of me, or my mother, or my father
who didn’t just win a bride
with his right feet and big shoes.
He won a green thumb.


Near the Ocean’s Edge

The bus that took my mother to Atlantic City in 1945 was a Greyhound.
She was fourteen, leaving home for the first time
to visit Adeline and John Higgins, who used to live next door.
They were childless and good to her.

She traveled alone, a tiny solitary thing.
A drunken sailor sat down next to her and stared then asked
Can I suck a hickey on your neck?
She had no idea what he meant, moved seats and sat alone.

Seeing the ocean for the first time she wept.
She couldn’t swim but walked the shore for hours.
Near the ocean’s edge she first saw seahorses, a herd of them floating.
They were beautiful and stationary, too magical to be living—

she thought them shells. Packed her suitcase full of them,
laid them gently between her worn cotton dresses
and underthings. Arriving home she opened her case
to show her treasures to a friend and they’d rotted.

The stench so strong it dizzies her still.


My Father’s Remains

The moment he died,
my father’s remains
grew small in size, shaped
by our hands and fingers.

The faint and lingering scent
of tobacco rose from
our paging his hymnals
and pawing his coats.

His wallet was frayed,
its outer-edges rawhide again
from years of his palming.
It held very little cash.

We opened that wallet
and found a fold-out tent,
stitched together in plastic
rows of worn faces.

It unfurled easily and we
fell down in steps. It held
all ten of us and our mother.
We found the wallet

in his small sock drawer,
the socks all uniform, all
black. I took them all and he
was laid to rest in borrowed.


Wild Fennel

render me yellow
a little while longer
bedside coast through sea window
render me open
scent my bedclothes with pollen
in cupped water linger
dusting May with your flavor
render me axis
stolen stalk of Prometheus
wand of forethought
weed-stem of longing
perennial center
render me umbel


After Singing Midnight Mass

The rest have gone ahead.
Old enough now
to walk the distance alone.

In these short hours
snow has fallen, just
a dusting marks the streets.

Cold air breathes all around.
Here now.
Wreathed doors beckon. Turning

the corner to North Avenue
the moon follows,
white against the clear blue night.

Up and down the sleeping mile
choir voices
echo still, the loft’s round staircase,

filled with joyful noise, silent now.
Our conductor’s wand
waving, his final smile

humming on. Already Christmas
morning. The paved road
ends, rough surface comes.

Ground known so well.
Almost there now.
Quiet woods to one side,

the tree trimmed before church
glows in the window.
Skating down the stone steps, one

by one. Gliding on. Hands
gloved, still warm.
Sound and light within.




I am the seed that roots and spreads,
I am the underbough unbearing.
I am the meristem, the forest in refuge,
the division in moss and the division in fern.
I am the absence of sound in deep rise,
in snow-buried mound, in matter-of-fact serration,
the feeling of stillness, that widens
and widens, then rustles and spills
from forked tongue to tadpole-spitting stream.
I am boundlessness of now, when it
is good to bear nothing but the weight
of its great vastness, while winters
pass from absence to deafening gathering
to absence again, many re-births
and sprawling coverings, till the falling ahead
becomes the falling behind, and half
the short seasons of the day are sameness.
Widening pools cast my perpetual echo,
I am bark of skin dividing out,
I am winged vertebrate weaving,
I am cambium, the forest in refuge,
the division in fern the place
of meristem division.

Tess Barry was shortlisted for the 2015 Manchester Poetry Prize (UK). Twice a finalist for North American Review’s James Hearst Poetry Prize and Aesthetica Magazine’s (UK) Poetry Award, she also was shortlisted for the 2014 Bridport Poetry Prize (UK). Most recently, her poems appeared in or are forthcoming in And Other Poems (UK), The Compass Magazine (UK), Cordite Poetry Review (Australia), Mslexia (UK), Mudfish, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, The Stinging Fly (Ireland), and The Woven Tale Press Literary and Fine Arts Magazine. Barry is a Fellow of the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project and teaches literature and creative writing at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. Website: Tess Barry

Wild Fennel and other poems are © Tess Barry

Publication Details

Wild Fennel, My Father’s Remains, Raspberries, Near the Ocean’s Edge, and After Singing Midnight Mass were shortlisted for the 2015 Manchester Poetry Prize and previously published on the Manchester Writing School’s website as part of the press release announcing the shortlisted poets. 

Deciduous was a finalist for North American Review’s James Hearst Poetry Prize and published in North American Review’s Spring 2014 issue.

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