Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Maxine Waters Named Me

Inspired by an anti-war speech

in Washington, D.C. in January, 2007.

She declared
“My name is Maxine Waters and I am not afraid…”
“My name is Maxine Waters and I am not intimidated…”

She did it deliberately;
in doing so, she named me.

It’s like she came to my kitchen table.
Named now, known now & more able
to live into my best self.
Not sit on some safe shelf.
Even as I sometimes carry clumsy doubt.
no longer can I opt out.

No more can I be inbetween,
oil profits are plain obscene.
Forty billion this year alone.
I gotta do more than just phone
my senator or rep.
They're too timid, ain't got real pep.
With their own stealth wealth,
they're on the wrong side of the hedge,

Me, I've made this pledge
declared my own name
not for riches or fame.
I have taken a side
I’m here for the whole damn ride:
Peace & justice is what I abide.

This can’t be narrow, got to be more,
it can’t just be about this damn war,
easy focus for leftist white girl like me.
This is about imperialist hegemony,
like forcing Aristide once again to flee.
This is about abject poverty:
Meth-implosion sucking hearts dry
Leaving children abandoned, only to cry.

This is about materialism, violence,
addiction that has silenced
far too many young brown faces
and those from working class places.
Media-spurred accumulation strains
not only our souls and brains,
but the earth’s precious store.
What in the hell are we doing this for?

We are taught to fear the stranger.
Registries define who is a danger.
Yet as I understand,

for both household and homeland,
this is not the whole reality.
It is not the one unknown to me,
brother crossing border illegally,
attempting a life of more decency.
Sometimes it’s our uncles, fathers, teachers
Sometimes, like now, it’s our national leaders.

Ms. Waters named me, gave little choice.
She named all within sound of her voice.
She called to those within reach of her words,
to all those who hear and all who have heard.

Since I’ve written this poem , it’s true:
it means that now you are named too.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Monday, January 29, 2007

Of Thighs & Sighs

Let my thighs praise you.
Let your sighs praise me.

Let my replies
Intersperse your sighs.
Let me be lengthy & lively,
Full of longing & loving.

I want you to hoist
My rhythms so moist,
Beyond & more,
Wet to the core.
I want to be leaning
Into the depth of your cleaving,
The gravity of your meaning
My body may defy,
Though I will not try
Your wishes to deny.

Let me be lengthy & lively,
Full of longing & loving.
Let my thighs praise you.
Let your sighs praise me.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Memento Mori

We all wonder whether
tonight’s scalpel will ease the fluid
building on his brain
or be metaphorically dull,
offering neither relief nor reprieve
for this man laying dying.
Well, not dying today --
(pray not today) --
but dying more quickly
or at least more evidently
than the rest of us in the room.

This formidable man, formerly with silver mane of hair;
This man of four successive wives,
the last fiercely attending,
sleeping beside him each night in hospital room;
This man whose days & nights once teemed with jazz,
international travel, political organizing, philosophical meandering
& (I’m guessing) the company of smart, sexy women.

His mind now foggy, his memory a blur,
I offer to read poetry aloud.
Pick one, I say, not handing him the book of
pastoral contemplation I brought
(it turns out those pages are full of death,
the possibility so palpable in the room
I don’t want to lend my voice to that theme,
not for a man doggedly clinging to life.)

Instead, I hand him the only other book of poems
in the room: his dog-earred copy of Sharon Olds.
He lingers as he chooses: I am not sure if
he is dazed or intent.
He hands back the book: an exhausting effort,
pointing to a poem entitled Sex without Love.

This man, thirty years my senior, is flirting
from the bed that cannot cure his cancer!

Flirting? Perhaps. But more likely: declaring life, not death.
His selection double-dog dares me & I accept.
I want him to believe that I am worldly & brazen
& can read life into his failing body.

Squirming in the chair beside him,
I can’t quite believe I am reading an erotic poem
to a dying man who is neither my husband nor my lover.
I’m wondering how it is I got here,
on this day & in this way
& if his wife hadn’t just stepped out of the room,
wouldn’t she wonder the same thing, too?

Yet this may be
(I pray it is not)
this may be the last thing
I do for this friend.
Who can deny a dying man his last wish?
Even if it turns out to be one of a thousand last wishes,
or just the one of one?

Like him, I refuse to take the easy way out.

Blushing, I read the poem first to myself, then to him.
Involuntarily grimacing, I am not offended,
but embarrassed and slightly titillated.
I do not want to stumble over the vivid, explicit parts –
it’s so sensual, so visceral. It is a good poem.

I cannot look him in the eye
but neither to do I stop
until the poem comes to its end
& his sigh praises me.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

I slammed this, and two others poems (Universe in my Uterus, Renee at the House of Ruth) this afternoon at the Florence Poets Society Jan Slam in Florence, MA. I won second place and $30 -- took my kids out to dinner at a new burger joint (Sparky's All American food) in Northampton with excellent fries. I wanted a veggie chili cheese dog; they had the veggie dog & the cheese. They had chili but not veggie chili, so I had to make do. Bummer. But, then again, they didn't have fritos to go under the chili, which would have recreated the amazing chili cheese boats from the days of watching my brother's little league baseball games back in the early 70s. Damn, those were tasty...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Hrant Dink

Rakel, the wife of late Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink, releases doves into the air as her daughter Sera (R) cries during Dink's funeral ceremony in Istanbul January 23, 2007. REUTERS/Stringer

Silent crowds carried placards reading "We are all Armenians". They paused and applauded as they passed the place where Hrant Dink was shot. (Associated Press)

I also saw a powerful photo, in my local paper today but cannot find it on the web, of a protester holding a sign that said "WE ARE ALL HRANT". Made me cry (and my adolescent son shake his head in disbelief at his mother's sentimental reactions...).

Yet this isn't sentiment; it is outrage and despair and resignation and a small, but still present, determination to do what I can in this world to live into that grief. "We are all Hrant". Nothing is more true. Great prophets tell us this, we must tell each other this, with our words and our actions.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Sparkling smile emanates in frigid air
as you wave for my attention.

How is it,
that after a fortnight of
sleeping & waking
on the 20th floor oncology wing,
your husband sick &
you blaze with such beauty?

Through the open car window
I kiss your cheek.
Knowing you only this short, dire time,
witnessing your fierce love
as guardian of your dying husband,
I am moved at the softness
which meets my lips.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A Moment's Peace Apart

Raising children is
living under constant scrutiny
at the most unwelcome times.

In a stolen moment of
private reverie,
walking out & back on
Old Granite Pier,
I practice saying aloud
a new poem that twists my tongue.
Salt & mist thick in the air,
I do it for no one but myself
& the grey coastal sky.

Gleefully, I climb into the car
fully believing I have managed to
sculpt a moment's peace apart.

Until the query practicing adolescent lilt,
"What were you saying out there?"

They say that Mellaril calms aggressive tendencies,
that Haldol quiets those pesky voices inside the head.
Fortunately I need no psychotropic drug:
my ever-present children are
reliable quashers of sweet delusions.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Monday, January 8, 2007

In Just That Order

I want to write poems that catch
like an aging carpenter’s weathered
hands on the bare of your back,
painful & pleasing & don’t stop,
in just that order.

Red, swollen poems that razor-burn cheeks
from six hours of late-night stubble-infused kissing,
a love that does not linger but leaves its mark.

I want to write barely decipherable poems on
torn scraps of discarded paper, dried out
cocktail napkins once used to soak up
spilt beer, lettering barely legible.

Asthmatic poems that leave you gasping,
unable to find your breath. Light-headedness
fogging the periphery of your vision,
dismal feeling just before the wind
recklessly expands your lungs again.

I want to write desperate poems
that push you out on the ledge,
furtively amass painkillers,
place blade to vein, knowing to
cut along the arm, not across the wrist.

Tight poems like the basalt Lemon Squeeze,
giving only claustrophobic way,
rock-hard, form-fitting space through which
your young niece passes carelessly,
but leaves you sweating and shaking

only to emerge victorious
on top of East Rock,
uninterrupted Atlantic at your feet.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Broken, Some End in Light

Rearview mirror reflects car askew:
it’s balance off, like it’s had a few
too many, or not enough.
Life is hard; I say it’s too damn rough:
A skid, a ditch, a siren in the night:
Some end in a flash of broken light.

My family tree strains
with secrets, addiction, inflicted pains.
Pride, integrity, sense of place
also comprise my early base.
Some stayed, others fled.
Most survived, a few bled.
Some begin in broken light.

At encroaching night I aim my dismissal.
Being weary, who’s to say this’ll
come back to brilliance leaking?
This starfield gash is seeking
true colors, not faded.
It’s hard to live in this world not jaded.
Somewhat broken ends in light.

Tell me, what else ends in light?
Tunnel death stroll filled with white.
Though not all
will hear that radiant call:
dark deeds tainting terminal rasp.
Stubborn digits clench, then grasp,
dragging down, not up to flight.
Broken, only some end in light.

Lesson of patient wisdom
the whole heart surround,
no fissure or fracture yet found.
Then the loss, the pain, the break:
Dharma flows in to make
a shattered life sharp, then bright.
Broken, some end in light.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston