“During a Long Drive, I Smell Vinegar” by Jessie Johnson

Jessie Johnson (age 14)


and I know your secret, No, impossible, not again.
You spit a wad of tobacco into an empty bottle, subtly.
I pretend not to notice. There’s a lump in between your cheek,
rotting away your teeth and staining your tongue.

But you spit a wad of tobacco into an empty bottle
and I’m knocked back to 1400 Mahantongo Street,
watching it rot away your teeth and stain your tongue.
Five-year-old-me dumping Skoal into the garbage, disgusted

enough that I’m knocked back to 1983; 3rd Avenue
where your dad died, bronchiole charred from cigarettes.
Five-year-old me spilling Skoal on the couch, panicking
from its stench and mom’s face when she’d seen. Oh God, she’d say

when you’d remember how your dad died, bronchiole: charred. Fear
made you replace it with sunflower seeds, gum, something to chew,
surrendering its stench and my face when I’d see. Please God, I’d pray
when you’d try to quit. I sit in your truck as you side-spit into a bottle,

shocked that you’ve replaced the sunflower seeds with chew. Again
I pretend not to notice. There’s a lump in my throat;
you tried to quit. I sit in silence as you side-spit into a bottle.
I know our secret. No. Impossible. Not again.

from 2021 Rattle Young Poets Anthology


Why do you like to write poetry?

Jessie Johnson: “I don’t think there is one answer to why I like to write poetry. In the beginning, I would read poetry to my family and I would wish it was my own. Then, it became a sort of therapy for me. Sometimes I wrote because something was frustrating me and I just needed to work through it. I still find that I discover something new about myself with everything I write, which is the coolest thing, but at this point, I also feel like I am writing simply because it has become such a part of me. It’s just like breathing—if you hold your breath for long enough, eventually your body will kick in and start to breathe again. I feel that if I tried to stop writing, after a few days my fingertips would find a keyboard again and before I knew it I would be writing. If you asked me why I love my parents, or my sister, or my cat, I could give you a bunch of things that I love about them, but at the end of the day, those are just traits. I love them because I love them. The same thing goes for poetry. I love it because, well, I do.”

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