March 26, 2015

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

[download audio]


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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October 18, 2013

Joel F. Johnson


When the mayor, who is black (our second),
reviewed the subdivision plans, he asked
about lighting, curbing and lot size, about square footage
and average price before he asked, as if in passing,
what about the old oak, will it have to go; and I,
older than the mayor, old enough to remember its name,
knew which oak, and said possibly not, we could keep it
for green space, and the mayor, walking me to his door,
said it would be good to have green space, this pleasant
chocolate-skinned man never acknowledging
the oak’s name, though from his question,
from the carefully casual way he asked, I think he knew it,
that he had been told the name by a father or grandfather
though neither could have seen it, as I did, or been there,
as I was, when last it was put to that purpose,
and I, the lesson’s last witness, then a boy of seven or eight
watched how the feet turned, twisting first left then right
then left again in car light, the head obscured, dark
above the beam, though I strained to see it, wanting
to see how the neck looked, how the rope looked,
the dead face, trusting as a boy of seven or eight will trust,
that it was just, that my elders had taught a necessary lesson,
but wondering if it might have been more
just to have selected someone older, since this one
seemed in my eyes, in a boy’s eyes, watching
the body twist in The Lesson Tree,
in the stark light of Buford Neil’s station wagon,
too small, too young, almost still a child.

from Rattle #39, Spring 2013
Tribute to Southern Poets


Joel F. Johnson (Georgia): “I often write poems using an assumed voice. In daily life, I tend to be pathologically nice. Writing poetry provides a refreshing opportunity to be bitter, angry, peevish and cruel.” (web)

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