“An Idea She Got from Oprah” by Joel F. Johnson

Joel F. Johnson


The new thing at dinner parties. At each place, a card.
On each card, a different time. On the other side
a topic we can’t look at until our time comes.

Carol Perkins turns her card at 7:15, reads My favorite memory.
Talks about when she was a girl climbing rocks at the ocean,
salt water seething in the gap,
how sails crossed the harbor like ladies at a ball.

With each new topic, our glasses refill.
7:45, A book that changed my life.
8:15, What I learned in college.
9:45, What is happiness?
Then 10:15, The meaning of life. And 10:45, God.

A man I barely know starts in a low voice,
gathers steam Elmer Gantry-style, says
I can’t speak for what others believe. Says
Call it God or call it a peanut butter sandwich. Says
I refuse to believe the universe is empty.

I can’t listen. Mine is the last card, and I can guess the topic.
Death at 11:15. I look down the table to my hostess,
this fiend who will require me to talk about death to her guests.
She’s woozy with her white wine, delighted by her dinner party.

Whatever will I say? Carol and Bob and Beth and Ted.
They’re all going to die. My tongue is numb. I realize
I have been over-served. All of us have.
We’re drunk, over-fed, and we’re all going to die.

Sure, it seems like a nice little dinner party,
the chicken, the wine, the flushed, earnest faces,
but it’s all temporary. We’re compost.
I might as well dine with a flock of skeletons.

What can I, a man who feels queasy just smelling a hospital,
who swore never to own another cat after grieving so for the last one,
what can I, a man who works only with numbers, say about death?

God runs over. At 11:45, our hostess taps her glass,
and smiling her cruelest hostess smile, says Time for our final topic.
A spoon settles in bone china.

I turn the card. My favorite movie.
My favorite movie?
I look around the table.
When I turned 21, I say, my mother died.

from Rattle #46, Winter 2014

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Joel F. Johnson: “I began writing poetry because I wanted to write poems. Since then, I’ve learned that my most successful poems don’t sound like poems. Now I don’t know if I’m getting closer to my goal or farther away.” (website)

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