I-70 Review

Writing and Art from the Middle and Beyond

My early stomping grounds were in the Westport area of Kansas City, Missouri within a bike ride of the Nelson Art Gallery and Loose Park.  An old guard seeing me alone at the gallery entrance occasionally invited me, a ten-year-old boy, to view the exhibits at the gallery under his supervision and instruction. My favorite painting was “John In The Wilderness,” by Caravaggio.  I have carried that secular image of John The Baptist as a guiding light and Caravaggio, a talented iconoclast, as my patron saint.  The pond and willow trees of the park were my escape from a troubled family home.

     Encounters going to and from inner city schools did not prepare me for an academic career but I learned how to navigate the streets well enough to survive the darker shadows of my neighborhood.  By chance I was awarded a half time scholarship at Rockhurst College, left home just before my seventeenth birthday and was able to find work as a copy boy and junior reporter at the Kansas City Times only to be drafted in 1966 on my way to graduate school.

     My national guard unit was activated during the race riots of 1968, then nationalized by Lyndon Johnson.  In 1969 I served with the 4th of the 9th Infantry along the Cambodian Border in Tay Ninh Province and at the 25th Division Headquarters Company in Cu Chi.

     My life has been enriched by experiences as a caddy at area golf courses, as a club house boy in the visiting team's locker room at the old Kansas City Athletics ball park where I waited on prominent baseball players of the late 1950's and managers like Casey Stengel, at a gourmet deli in a store where I learned about uncommon foods, cutting fiberglass at a plastics factory where I learned about unions and worker's rights, as a driver for the Coca Cola Bottling Company and as a psychiatric and medical nurse's aide where I learned a little about caring for people in pain.  

     At age eleven my father took me to a meeting of the Westport Landing Democratic Club and I became hooked on politics.  In the early 1970's I worked as a volunteer in two of Rep. Richard Bolling's election campaigns.

     When I returned from the Vietnam War I was newly married and flat broke.  Against all instincts I went to work for a reinsurance company in their libel insurance department where I was also exposed to special risks accounts like kidnap/ransom and professional liability insurance. In 1979 at the suggestion of the risk manager of a prominent national publisher I formed  Media/Professional Insurance, an international underwriting and claim management firm that insured and defended the First Amendment rights of the media, and then developed a national one-of-a-kind errors and omissions program backed by Lloyds of London for special risk exposures. My partner and I sold the company in 1992 when funny money investors began to flood the insurance market.

     My first book of poetry, The Eye Of The Ghost, won the 1985 BkMk Missouri Poet Contest.  Years later, my poem, “In The Morning In Missouri,” was chosen by The Kansas City Star as its official state poem.

     I am also the author of three other books of poetry: Last Lambs: New and Collected Poems of Vietnam (First and Second Editions) and Promises In The Dust, published by BkMk Press, and Pear Season and The Boy Who Ate Dandelions,  published by The Mid-America Press.

     My poems have appeared in several anthologies including, From Both Sides Now:  The Poetry of the Vietnam War and its Aftermath, Scribners, and are you experienced?:  baby boom poets at midlife, University of Iowa Press, and various poetry reviews and journals.

     I also write “long” stories, am in the process of writing a novel and maintain a website at billbauerpoetry.com.

     I currently serve as managing director of Scattering Skies Press, Inc., a non-profit publisher of unique and original poets who allow us to publish their work under the SSP imprint.  (SSP does not accept or return unsolicited submissions).

     I live and write on the island of Maui with my wife, Kathy.  My son, Erik, founder of Middle Class Pig Records and a concert promoter, lives in Tubingen, Germany.  My daughter, Laura, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design and Manufacturing (FDIM), a poet and a standup comedian, died of a seizure at the age of 34.


We weep today for those

whose names are carved on this wall,

for those whose bodies

tumble in distant waters,

for those who've never returned

from the dust of another country

We weep too for these old soldiers

standing here to the boom of the guns

and the haunted brass of bitter bugles

They empty their tears for themselves,

for the lies they believed,

for the boys they once were

before they learned to kill


There was a redhead once

in tight jean cut offs

He hears soft melodies without words,

sees open spaces, mountain scenes

from airplane windows

His reading habits are gone—

not able to concentrate, scans

gray days, stares

ahead at nothing

Sounds he once knew,

her voice, their moment

Abruptly stopping,

heads cocked over a bridge,

pointing to a swirl

What was that they saw?

There's a wall with ivy on it,

but from where?

Were there walls where

enemy soldiers were stood

in rows and shot,

or did he just dream that?

He sees her face on every other

woman walking by

She could be the woman

from the forgetting time

before the time of forgetting

Bill Bauer


We old lion tamers

usually cry

at the damnedest of times:

reading the newspaper on the toilet,

watching TV while everyone sleeps

An old lion tamer

can cry looking at the refrigerator

We remember how it was

We don't want any more paws

“Away loud growls and scary eyes!

Away hurtful incisors,”

once and for all

We move around our houses

as we did in our cages,

backs pressed against bars,

brandishing whips

in case they try to sneak in

“Back, lion!” we snap

“Back, beast!”

Even when we crack our whips

and shout commands

we are still crying

It's not easy being a lion tamer

We remember all those times

we were six years old


During our family's Paleozoic era,

we used watermelon rinds for pickles

and as compost for fishing worm

colonies behind the box elder tree

Our chore was to dump the remains

in the backyard garbage can

where ghostly maggots squirmed

inside the lid

The burial done, we hurried from

the rank odor of spent coffee grounds

and sludge of leftovers to pass through

the fume of freshly mown bluegrass

Dinner dishes wiped dry, stacked in cabinets,

mom and dad laughing and reporting

the day's news on the front porch swing,

we dashed shirtless and barefoot

in homemade shorts past the wooden

bowl of apples on the dining room table

to feel the soft breezes of early evening

across the smooth skin of our youth:

All big ears and teeth when we were perfect

examples of The Classical Period before

the uprising known as The Days of Rage


Leaves drained of color on a wet sidewalk;

the girl he always wanted who

let other boys touch her there;

grandmother kissing grandfather's chloroformed lips;

naked Jennifer gulping grape juice and grain alcohol

as she tripped over fallen trees in the Missouri Ozarks;

a fish gilled out of water on a treble hook;

girls sitting prettily, smoothing dresses in shade;

a young wife across a picnic table, backhanded;

one-year-old pounding a toy keyboard;

flowers, lots of flowers in a garden of pagan statues

in coitus circled by insects;

lovers seated at night on the asphalt roof of an old house;

her constant laughter,

every funny thing she ever said


A brown boy slumped in a third hand desk

in a shabby classroom in a crumbling school

in a graffiti scarred hood

looks down into a picture on half

a page scribbled with crayon

and slips into a rain forest

of greenness, soft earth and shade

marbled by sunlight streaking

through a triple-canopy jungle

where pigmy children in loin cloths

laugh and play in a circle of huts

made of sturdy sticks and mud,

their mothers breast feeding babies

overseen by matriarchs stirring wooden bowls

and tiny men with spears standing guard,

in a picture in a torn and faded book

in a shabby classroom

where he daydreams himself inside a hut

asleep in the soft breezes of night

under a thatched roof of broad leaves

and nobody named Charles lurks outside

waiting to take him down


The finch that surprised me

from a row of thick bushes

at the edge of the ocean path

pulled the sun

on a long slender blade

of seasoned straw

fighting the wind to reach

a tangled tree ahead

and disappeared from view

to weave what I thought might be

a new harmony among the leaves

The sight of its sudden streak

follows me through the day

into a daydream of myself

cuddled in a feathered bassinet

surrounded by scarlet breasts

and the jade glint of tiny eyes

I want to dart from this world

in the same way,

to reside within shaded green:

Tapping beaks, telling stories,

laughing about the funny creature

I saw on my way home

from the hardware store


If I buy you a new dress, a short one

in a floral pattern cut deep from the shoulders,

and wide brimmed straw hat, will you stand

beneath the trees before the pears fall and rot,

barefoot, hair tumbling from chapeau,

wearing only that dress,

and lift the hem high enough

to show the place where your thighs

meet the roundness of your cheeks?

Fill the dress then with ample pears

so I can make for you

French butter pears in raspberry sauce

to go with a glass of red wine

this evening on the wooden deck

as the colors of the treetops change

and before we go back inside

to escape the coming chill

I promise not to photograph you

or tell anyone what we've done

I'll just remember you one autumn afternoon

when we couldn't hold enough of each other,

when the pears were so many

there wasn't time between us to gather them all


I don't envy you your mortal enemies –

coaches, scoutmasters, priests, uncles,

arrogant enough to tell you how you must live –

who want you to believe the only regimen

to go from boy to man takes huffing, puffing,

gritting of teeth, spasms in calves and thighs,

a catch in your ribcage –– pain

Shouts and hoots from passing cars confirm

the tyranny of what you've been taught to believe:

"candy ass," for one thing; "sissy," for another,

that you need to "earn those abs"

What I do envy is that you just don't seem

to give a shit:

the flaps of your helmet swing freely under your chin,

no tears I can see, a steady march uphill,

teeth riveted in steely and unforgiving sass

I like your private smile at the pinnacle,

how you snap your helmet tight,

casually mount the bike,

arch up the front wheel into the wind,

pedal furiously downhill

Fly now, iconoclast, fly


When the student is ready, the master will appear


For many years the student followed

the master without question or doubt

to wherever the master traveled

and looked to whatever the master pointed,

the mountains, the rivers, the flatlands,

the stars, the void between them

They came at last to a divide

going one way, another,

onward, never ending,

and the student found himself

suddenly alone

He turned to see where the master

had gone and saw only a tiny bent figure

disappearing many miles behind  

The student traveled alone a while

without regard to time or place

until he felt the hand of a boy

slipping into his hand,

and began to wonder when

he too would come to a divide

going one way, another,

onward, never ending,

and for the first time

he felt afraid


     I discovered poetry through an early bond I formed with my mother who read me nursery rhymes and later competed with me to see who could be first to ace word jumbles in the daily newspaper.  Our sessions led to my fascination with the sound and provenance of words and how they formed the happenings we call poems.

         While I will always be angry about being robbed of an academic career by being drafted against my will into a no-account war, I concede that the life-changing detour led me to witness the gamut of human foible, tragedy and enterprise as an underwriting manager in the special risks insurance market.  A lot of irony, and many examples of injustice, fraud and hypocrisy, are to be found there. Conversely, I have been fortunate in life to experience the beauty and violence of nature, and the basic goodness of people everywhere.  I consider these experiences to be the grist of poetry.

         Aristotle wrote, “Nothing is in the mind that is not first in the senses.” Those words have become my touchstone –– to keep an eye and ear open to the voices of authentic people and real life events.

         Since I find no evidence of an afterlife, I am stuck sparring against metaphysics by telling stories.  For me, that is what poems do: tell stories that cannot be told in any other way.  The kinds of poems that appeal most to me are those that display a unique way of hinting at the inexplicable.  As a form of storytelling, poems are a “for example,” because the details of a story rarely tell the whole story.

         Writing poems is an individual matter.  To each our own.  As with any human experience, there is no good and bad, right or wrong.  I do not think writing authentic poems can be taught.  Poems occur; they cannot be invented.  I write them down in the shape and flow and rhythms that they come to me. They are not word games or shorthand for anything.  They can be as long, as short, as musical, as prosaic, as they need to be.

         My interest in how we know things led me to experimental psychology, today known as neuroscience, the pursuit of which cost me my military deferment and dropped me into the middle of the Vietnam War.  At some moments I am a poet;  others a “scientist;” a business guy or a political activist. First and foremost, like it or not, I will always be a soldier.  There are no particular ways to describe what it is like to be a combat soldier.  There are poems.  So how it is goes with the rest of being born into this world.

         The hows and whys and conventions of writing poetry are less important to me than the poems themselves.  Poems are to be seen and heard and relished.  As Mama Cass has sung, to take a reader, “somewhere they've never been before”.