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Marjorie Barnes

North Plainfield, NJ, United States


"My poems “Addiction Riff” and “Maafa Trilogy,” focus on the impact that drug addiction has on families, and how it often tears families apart. In the poem “On Being Thirty-three,” which is formatted in the shape of a hypodermic needle, I write about what is often a tragic consequence of intravenous drug addiction – contracting HIV.  However, in the poem “Collected Stories,” I decided to do something different and write from the point of view of an addict. Inspired by the “Herointown” series from NJ Advance Media's Stephen Stirling and NJTV’s Drug Addiction, Recovery and Treatment Forum on October 5, I set out to write a poem that traces the source of heroin addiction. Many recovering heroin addicts whose testimonies I listened to at NJTV’s forum and read about online described how their addiction began with a doctor’s prescription for oxycodone, and when they could no longer get prescription refills, they began buying the pills on the streets, and when the pills became too expensive, they started using heroin because it was cheaper and gave them the same high as oxycodone. With “Collected Stories,” I wanted to explore the opioid-heroin connection, and also the extent to which childhood trauma and familial pressures in someone’s life are often the cause of heroin addiction."  - Marjorie Barnes

Collected Stories

by Marjorie Barnes

Because the story never begins
with a needle in your arm
in some dark alley perched
against a garbage dumpster
because you’re not even there.

You are a good Catholic girl,
sitting on your mother’s living room
sofa dating the guy she hates.
His arm around your shoulders,
a cigarette dangling from his lips
and he’s drinking a beer.

And the story doesn’t begins
after you unlace your sneakers
and spread your toes wide,
looking for that good vein
because you’re not even there yet.

You are the three piece suit on
Wall Street with a BMW, a house and
a pregnant wife. You struggle to be
the father in those Dick and Jane books
we used to read in elementary school.

But if you look closely
you’ll see the story deeply
rooted inside a flat chested
ten year old girl or a scrawny
legged boy, and a favorite uncle
touching you in places you
didn’t know excite you.

And quiet as it’s kept
sometimes the story begins
with a ache in your back or
the misery of a wisdom tooth
scribbled across a doctor’s
prescription pad. And now,
you are no longer the daughter
or husband you once were.
You are an opioid high
sinking in to the ground and
swaying like a palm tree.

And whenever you finally awake,
your high becomes a stolen car
that never slows down,
a burning piston rising
in your chest or an pain
that won’t recoil.

And when you’ve stolen
your mother’s wedding ring
and sold your pregnant wife’s
fur coat, rumor has it
you’re a turnstile at rehab,
a juicer of methadone,
a family’s rosary of tears
just hanging on for the day
when you will kick it, quit it,
kick it, quit it.


Addiction Riff
by Marjorie Barnes

“It’s too cold for your brother
to sleep in the hallway”
my mother tells me.

F**king junkie:
Hands rubbing
the front of his worn
jeans. Feet shifting
side to side.

The hallway.
Where my brother has
slept ever since he took
the hinges off
my bedroom door,
sold my new clothes
to a girl on Hawthorne Avenue.

But this is my mother.
Can’t stand to see her
children suffering.
The sacrifice of one
for the other.

“He’s just gone sleep on
the couch” she says.
“Just tonight.”
I acquiesce knowing
either way
he’s going
to be cold.


On Being Thirty-three
by Marjorie Barnes

the age of my brother
with HIV.
Six months to live.
But he lived to thirty-six,
carving each day for himself.
And now,
here I stand.
Once again,
to be tested
for the result
paradigm shift
keep busy
read a book
just think
of your brother
just think
of your brother


*Maafa Trilogy
by Marjorie Barnes
(*maafa in Swahili means terrible occurrence)

Holding you in the palm of my hand
I feel as close to motherhood as I’ll ever be.
Tiny fingers and toes,
eyes sparkling with a sleepless innocence.
You are the girl-child no one wanted.
The problem everyone expected.
The drug baby.
The addict.
Your world controlled by DYFS workers
who reminded your mother that
her hands were not safe
to carry you home.

I look in to your eyes
and see images of my mother,
your grandmother.
Baby on one hip, one in carriage.
One holding her hand, one on the way.
Some round, some thin.
Some eleven months apart.
All twelve of us pressed against
her swollen flesh like dominoes.
We are her children.

I try to imagine what life
must have been like for my mother,
but can only see through the tainted eyes
of a nine year old daughter.
The whispered conversations
of adults who wondered,
how could she have another
that she has no right to burden
the community any further, and
oh God, I hope she gets her tubes tied
or stop f**king all together.

Their black and blue voices
slide down my back,
and wrap around me
like the red snorkel coat
I hate to wear to school
where I am attacked on the playground
by friends who ask me
if my mother is pregnant again.
I deny the baby in her womb
tell them that my mother is fat
and eats too much.
They fall down with laughter.
Their soles touching the sky.
And on that day,
long before tampons
and first kisses
I vowed never
to have children.

Just then,
I am brought back by DYFS hands
who tap me on the shoulder to tell me
that she has found a family for you,
a couple who has experience with babies like you,
like it’s really okay that children like you
are taken away from their families every day.
Don’t feel guilty she says.
But you are my niece.
Don’t feel guilty she says.
But it isn’t guilt
that I feel.

It’s baby on one hip, one in carriage,
one holding her hand, one on the way,
some round, some thin,
some eleven months apart,
all twelve of us pressed against
her swollen flesh like dominoes.

In spite of the multitude,
we are her children.
In spite of the whispered voices,
we are her children.
When my mother’s fix
becomes my own,
we are her children.
And long after the laughter’s gone,
we are her children.
We are HER children.
We are HER children.
WE are her children.
And right now,
you are mine.

The call for poems portion of NJTV's Addiction Crisis initiative is made possible by a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Each poetry submission in this site, and any statement or opinion expressed therein, is the work of its author, and does not reflect the views or opinions of NJTV. Some material may contain graphic content.