Thursday, December 18, 2008

How Are You?

It’s a long question. Then you say,
Well, it’s a short question with a long answer.

A bubble has burst,
the one inflated around you
and around all near you:
the bubble that you might
be able to lick this thing
that really no one licks,
just endures.

You apologize
for being bearer of bad news.
Such a perverse dynamic:
the sick, who are living it,
become caretakers of those
who must only listen to the news.

The bed is now downstairs.
(Sure sign, not lost on you,
but is it spoken aloud?)
I state stalwartly
I will re-up my letters.
I say you can read them
if you are so inclined,
disregard them if you choose.

I am always inclined to read your letters.

I say, I will come on Friday.
That I don’t care how miserable you are,
you needn’t apologize for having bad news.
Be as miserable as you like.

You laugh.
It has little breadth,
little breath.
That’s okay.
Sad, but okay.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Monday, December 1, 2008

Consider This Withered Apple

rusted crimson, leathered skin,
hanging by single stem,
rigid leaves turning to dust
at winter’s early claim.

There is nothing in this field
that will not tend toward decay.

Like the crooked orchard branches,
my finger nails curve to the right.
Echoing my great grandmother: sturdy lace,
corrupt disdain, early stroke, her cut crystal.

One of which I broke this past holiday --
lack of care, lack of grace
they intermingle, they muddle,
they conclude in cracked glass.

Lack of grace,
consistent thread in my life:
penchant for physical clumsiness,
tripping where there is no stone in the path.

It is exhausting to remember
that generosity and open heart
are still worthwhile in the face of rancid lies,
my own words turned against me.

Wintered-over properly --
sequestered in dry root cellar
or canned in speckled pot
atop steaming stove –

apples entice the tongue,
tart burst of wistful intrigue,
back one autumn, promise of next:
demise, opportunity, dense package

blossom, fruit, rot.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, November 30, 2008

At the Passing of Miriam Makeba

Don't label me
Don't you dare brand me.

She seethes fire,
her voice of years ago
now over the radio
on the day her heart stopped.

Shout South Africa to freedom!

Taken from this world
not at home, but abroad,
not home that had once been
three decades stolen from her.

Dance South Africa to freedom!

Yes, Mama Afrika seethes fire,
breathes fire, sings fire.
Also earth, air, water --
water that shimmers light on rock wall,
pounds the temples as it falls.
Air that shakes acacia leaves,
melts snow on pine boughs.
Earth that swings the hips,
clay dense under foot.

Sing South Africa to freedom!

She made it home, thirty years later,
a better version, a better vision.
Still flawed, yes, but all
air, water, fire, earth
belonging, finally, to all.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Miriam Makeba died November 10, 2008 at the age of 76 years.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Ode to Joy (Scene One)

Pull into friend’s driveway,
emerge from car crooning
top-of-lungs loudly.

See unexpected carpenter
straddling slanted shingles,
grinning at the tone-deaf singing.
Awkward moment, must decide:
embarrassed or joyful?

Choose joy.

Greet the stranger boldly,
despite timid tendency.
See other workhead bob,
initially hidden by roof slope.

Turns out his scruffy head
belongs to the guy you chatted up
at a friend’s wedding
five years ago,
a hundred miles away.

You danced
with him,
discovered you lived
in the same town,
gossiped long
into the tipsy night,
never saw him again.

'Til now.

Karen G. Johnston

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hatless Courage

toward a new kind of love your life has never allowed
(Adrienne Rich)

As I read other poets’ words,
you sat in the pew,
your hat off,
your head bald,
shock of white hair gone.

I felt such love for you,
for you and your hatless courage
in our holy house.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, November 2, 2008

How We Met

At Kate’s recent 50th birthday party,
her story of how we met
differed enough from mine,
it left me confuzzled.

The first time I saw Naomi,
then pregnant with twins
who are now thirteen,
I imagined such fun
to befriend her.
It came years –
and one failed marriage –

Like the woman herself,
the conceptive moment of friendship
with Diane is concrete and clear,
traceable to one set of circumstances,
no grey area, no shade of doubt.

Even with Lew, who has been
so many things to me --
teacher, lover, ally, sustainer, foil,
and above all, friend --
there is one moment
of initial connection
neither of us can dispute.

Now that you are gone
it is left only to me
to name the how and when,
as well as the why.

I’d rather it otherwise.

Oh, just to sit across
the dinner table,
a fine tug of war
over soft butter & sourdough
from the Hungry Ghost,
Sandy as playful referee:
I’d gladly cede any right
to name how we met,
If only you’d come back
to hash it out with me.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Friday, October 31, 2008

My Unsettled Uncle

It was the last time I saw my friend alive.
She lay her petite clothed body
along the full length of his lanky one,
machines and tubing his newly-hatched limbs.

It is an elemental moment.
Also a sensual one.
She caressed him, cooed at him,
she even stroked his chest.

Why was that?
To show his arousal
at her barest touch
even while in coma?

To hold on just a bit longer?

I found it shocking. All of it --
his hardening nipple
her lavishment upon him
my witness of it all

I have shared these poems
with my adoring, aging uncle.
He too found himself uncomfortable voyeur,
party to something he shouldn’t be.
perhaps this intimacy is not totally
for me to know about.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Monday, October 27, 2008

First Impression

Candles at the altar
Await long strides
To bring your flame
To their wick.

You speak of long dead mother
Gratitude and longing
The ache in your heart.

In the center pew, five rows back,
A friend with long hair whispers in my ear
Now there’s a decent soul.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

October Prayer

for eem

Each steadily darker morning
offers sure evidence of autumn.
Sometimes whole, sometimes eviscerated:
proud trophies of hunter cat.

There was a time I elected to join palms
to these once sentient beings.
Perhaps I should begin again.

Ravenous chaos permeates the air.
Wall Street disemboweling Main Street?
Illusory election with extreme right
playing for centrist, centrist for liberal left?

Scrappy rudebekia & spidery cosmos
still campaign from garden soapbox.
Sharp blade to those with beauty left to offer.
Whisper of gratitude before metal snip.

Hard to know whether the nation will persist
with this course of heady cruelty, greedy death.
Don't wish too hard -- it might hurt too much afterwards.

Is this so-called hopemonger any true friend of the Poor?
The last president from Hope enacted welfare reform
that had nothing to do at all with the Poor faring well.

My friend says a nation will always
elect the leaders they deserve.

I join these hands now and pray it is not so.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I stand before the squall in the crib.
All others in the house sleep deeply.

Too deeply, her parents
for they do not stir
even as squall
becomes tempest.

Though I have two children,
here among the deep sleepers,
I did not know them as infants in cribs
crying out in the middle of the night.

I stand helpless before this tempest,
unsure how to calm the storm,
how to be eye of hurricane.
In this middlenight darkness,
I am unsure of nearly everything.

Everything, except the barren truth
that this gale of an babe
is the closest I will ever come
to babe of my body.

Unlike her diminutive older sister
who is her mother –
small in form, large in stature –
this one is a tank of a girl,
her father’s stout frame in miniature.
Though her hair is the black sheen
that tops her mother’s head
the rest is all Papa:
nose, head, movement lacking grace.

She is the one human being
who most resembles the child
I almost but never conceived.

There is so little I am sure of in the middle of this, or any, other night.

I do not trust myself
to hold this downpour,
for fear I will never let go:
never let go the baby
I thought I’d never meet.

Except here she is
and I, the only one
who can take her up,
who can hold her,
who can calm her stormself,
can give her what she needs.

Instead, I wake her parents.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, September 21, 2008

to be bread for one another

holy, holy the small edifice
with its creaking floorboards

you left your half century of home,
a pilgrim questing for the true

landing at this truth
full with a riot of flowers

their bepetaled crowns
rising sunward all summer

you said we aren’t meant to be alone

now is equinox
and they descend to soil

to next season’s cacophony
and you seek solace

no longer just in the company of harvest, fallow,
then furrows with portent of could-be and not-yet

not just among old friends whose pluck
you let pull you north in the first place

but in the company of a woman
who is simply smitten with you

a woman who might be,
one day, bread to your bread

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Not Yet Gone

Today I place my wrinkled palm
on my daughter’s shirted back.
She’s dressed in soccer garb,
matching-green everything
adorning a nearly thirteen-year-old body
moving with enviable verve.

My hand passes smoothly
as I stroke her back.
I notice something --
not the thing already gone,
but the thing before
imminent absence:
No undergarment
as sartorial speed bump
to my finger circles of delight
along her shoulder blades.

That day will come:
Gone flat chest.
Gone smoothed fabric.
Gone baby-mine.

So many days
pass unheeded,
but not today.
Today is not
one of those days.

Today is a day
not yet gone.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Letting Go

Forget me she entreats.
I do. Everyday I forget you.
Forget stubbed fingers
never reaching piano keys properly.
Disregard the image your lips parted,
chin raised to meet me.

Let me go she pleads.
I do. Every day I release you.
Release the recollection of hipsway,
let loose skirt’s subtle shadow
of where your thighs meet.

Be done of me she implores.
I am. Everyday I am done of you.
I close the book holding scant keepsakes
of our few forever-days together.

Everyday, I open it anew.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Molten Joy

Crucial is molten joy,

burning me into the ground,

scorching pampass grass

still sharp as ever.

I walk in its midst,

slight nicks at my ankles,

calves and shoulders

sing in the sweat.

Not lullaby, but the blues,

high-pitched, momentary,

til what I’ve done

is walk clear out.

A yellow-throated warbler

chastises as I pass under her.

I can’t tell day or night,

the light is so muddling,

my heart is that open, that hidden,

anything seems probable.

No matter:

I put tongue to wrist,

suck at the sour salt.

Anything probable?

When feet brand

their own footprints,

the only answer is yes.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Making the Most of Muck

This morning I gave a sermon as part of the lay-led summer services at the Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence. The text of the sermon can be found at this link at the blog with my sermons. Namaste.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Twilight Offer

Isn't every twilight

a resignation, an offering?

Mosquitoes buzzing

not merely

pitiful existence,

but also

no separation:

my blood,

their lifeline.

Each red swell of itch

remnant of our joining.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Deftly Hearing the Music

I delivered a homily (the word I use to describe a brief sermon) as part of an intergenerational chapel service on Star Island last night. You can read the homily by clicking here. The homily is built in large part on a Pulitizer Prize winning article, which can be found at this link.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

rapid fire posting

it's not that i've had some great unblockage of writing energy and all of a sudden, here is a multitude of hot-off-the-press poems. nope. i'm just cleaning out some computer poetry files from the past few years, stuff that i hadn't been ready to post for one reason or another. so though it may look like july 13th, 2008, will go down in the history books as karen's most productive poetry day ever, it is a farce, an illusion. just enjoy the stuff (or not)... KJ

The Morning After

This is how I will pay.

Not with insidious STD,

unplanned procreative outcome,

nor tremulous hangover.

Not even with

will-you-respect-me-in-the-morning shame

at just how and where and when

and how loud.

No, for the rather lively late night,

I will pay

with the steady stream

of grating utterances

otherwise known as

reasonable questions

from my loving,

world-curious children.

Ahhh ! That one could fuck all night

and not be too tired to parent in the morning.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Again & Anew

I would like to do, again & anew,

What we did & didn’t yet do.

On top, below, askance, askew:

All about me, all about you.

Unexplored territory, the tried & true.

I would like to do it all again & all anew.

Not too many tricks; just a few.

Perhaps a new stance, a different view.

I’m being candid; my words are true:

I want many more, not just a few.

Toes a tangle, clothes all strewn,

The motion, the moan: in sync, in tune.

Let’s not wait ‘til the day is through.

Let us go, without further ado.

All again & all anew, I would like to do

what we did & are about to do.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Juxtaposition of the Tenderest Kind

I wrote this a few months back and it refers to an incident one year ago nearly exactly. The fact that I am considering posting this -- having never considered it before -- is a sign to me of healthy distance from an intense moment of suffering for me and my loved ones. Blessed be for that. KJ

The night after

my beloved boy


scraped skin

from his flesh

The night after

he ran from home

the first time,

me raging

at the unbidden cop

who spooked him away,

me crying hours


The night after

he sat tight-lipped

in the well-past midnight ER,

obstinate in the face

of the social worker

a kind man, a sweet friend, made love to me.

Never before.

Never since.

Never again.


How devastatingly urgent this compulsion --

this can’t not --

as I rummage through my bag

which is acting all passive aggressive & withholding,

like I don’t know all it does for me:

lets me carry unnamed & uncountable detritus around.

Sitting next to me, in the supposed-to-be hushed pew

my dear friend -- also a writer --

knows just what I’m jonesing for.

She dives into her own voluptuous sack:

unzipping resounds in the great hall,

loud the crinkling paper,

for what seems like the rest of the service.

At last, I see success on her face.

She extends to me her open hand:

in her supple palm,

not the sought-after pen or pencil,

but a pristine tampon

that nearly interrupts the sermon

with our mischievous delight!

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Perfect, Where I Am Not

My friend admires

her daughters' lithe bodies

while cursing her own,

all hip, belly, & thigh.

She remembers too well

how she once looked like them,

more twig than trunk.

Though there is grief when I behold

my daughter's burgeoning shape,

knowing I had nothing to do

with its creation,

I also feel relief.

It is not that I think her perfect,

where I am not.

I know acne will scar her.

Lack of symmetry will follow her.

Body hatred is female legacy

not even pure motherlove

can fully displace.

It is just so much easier

to love her flaws over my own.

Karen G. Johnston

Thursday, July 10, 2008


It doesn’t roll off the tongue.

A poet friend suggests excising it,

since stumbling is a sign

of wrong word choice.

Yet inexplicable belongs in a poem.

Belongs in every poem.

Is a poem, in and of itself.


It’s why I bother to put pen to paper.

It’s the reason for ragged keyboard rhythm,

late night blue screen blanching my face.


How we rise each morning,

instead of burying our heads

under bedcovers,

sewing them shut.

Why we keep on

welcoming babies

with bone-deep joy

to this sordid world.

How we fill burlap sacks

with grit and gratitude,

our hands shredded

as we drag one over the other.

How we refuse the daily pull

towards greedy dark,

keeping at least one toe,

some of us whole torso,

in the light.


It’s what makes a poem

worth writing, worth reading,

worth flooding the world

with redundant, flawed attempts

at explanation.

It’s just the way it is.

There is no other way.

Stumbling every time,

practice or no.

Just part of the bargain…

the unavoidable,




(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


I am rumble strip, waking you
from lethal lethargy.
I am flaked salt
among heaped ashes,
left for void
but lush with promise.

I am precious, not convenient.

I am leech, seeking blood
among folds and hollows
your skin holds
but you cannot reach.

I am precious, not merciful.

I am eventual saturation,
but not til you yearn to drown,
beg for the more that is me,
bittersweet on your tongue,
trembling against your mouth.

Your body is hidden hush.
I rock you with reckless rush.
I lurk, I loom, bring you full bloom.

Your body has wisdom only I can distill.
You had inkling of this until we met;
now you have urgency.

I am precious, not satisfying.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Declaration of INTERdependence

This being the last Saturday before the 4th of July, I joined the stalwart group of anti-war activists who spend every 11- 12noon on the corner of Main, King, & Pleasant Street in Northampton. I haven't joined this group in so long, it feels like it was my first time, but more accurately, I've probably joined in there three times in the past eight years (they protested the sanctions before the war). Anyhoo, inspired by the guerilla poetics of Nathaniel Siegal and Susan Brennan of Brooklyn, from whom I took a workshop called "Off the Page & Into the Streets," while I was a the Split this Rock! Poetry Festival -- I handed out quarter-page sized documents (on parchment paper) that said the following (I'm hoping the elaborate script [black ladder font] comes through on the posting, but I don't think it will...):

Declaration of Interdependence

I am

(not at war)

with you.

X __________________

X __________________


Thank you, too, to my etheral friend, Roy at Return to the Center, who has become a regular dude on the Saturday morning anti-war scene in Newburyport and describes his experiences there regularly on his blog. I found it very anxiety producing to be there -- not because I was worried about mean pro-war forces. Nothing noble like that. This anxiety was totally social. I actually rode my bike in this humid soup of weather, got there, walked around scoping the place out, and almost left without staying. Then I gave myself a good talking to and forced myself to join the group of but strangers. Since I can be a bit of a misanthrope, joining a group of strangers is a highly anxiety-provoking experience for me. Well, I stayed. Yeah for me. -- KJ

Friday, June 27, 2008

STR! links to Sweetest Hangover

Is it way too self-aggrandizing to write this post, which is about a web site's link to my poem, Sweetest Hangover, an earlier post on my blog? Alone in my house for a few precious hours, I'll say the jury is out on that one...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


for Pat, now Patrick, from a long time ago

Stroking the uneven fret board

that is the rise and fall of your breath,

my finger finds its perfect indentation,

where sides, right and left, become center.

There, a generous hollow

suggests essential absence,

which I fill.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston


Abrupt heart flutter,

adrenaline’s lash.

Twisted ankle at topmost

pitted concrete stair

damp from morning’s

thunder letting.

Half vision crumpled below:

instinctive headshake, image gone

except behind closed lids.

Solid each foot,

grounded heel to toe.

Mindful of body borrowed,

still mine

for now.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ever the Romantic

I think this sounds better aloud than just read. It's not deep, just personal. KJ

How long his forehead pressed to glass,

could it be the whole school year past?

Boy waving on bus from home to school,

hoping that someone, me or you’ll

cotton to the notion and mirror the motion.

Did he start in September, back in the fall

which is when you & I met, not expected at all.

I remember your fingers strumming,

me, you, your guitar humming.

I placed my palm on the small of your back,

the heat from that momentary contact

still tingles my hand, sensation grand

& utterly unplanned.

It would be so easy: call it mere crush.

Aren’t I always so quick to rush?

The impulse to discount the attraction,

deny the chemical reaction,

degrade to pleasant distraction.

Then in February again we stood

together at the pagoda in the wood,

all fleece collar & knit hat,

talking this, talking that.

Your restless hands on café table;

me, both full & empty, not quite able

to do more than sip ginger tea,

everything coming out awkwardly.

The sun blazes, a time to cheer;

school’s sweet release is near.

Summer promises everyone, pass or fail,

a chance for adventurous tales.

Soon at your home I will appear,

behold you in your own sphere,

my heart full of both hope & fear.

For some reason, my heart is patient for you.

What is between us? Friendship? Love so true?

At this point, there’s no way to know,

only the prospect of seeing time flow.

Now is not the moment, it’s clear.

Children must grow up not there, but here.

In the meantime, I’ll flirt with more than a few.

Probably take a lover or two.

Definitely get a third tattoo.

Not really sure what you will do.

Yes, these feelings may disappear.

But what should I do? Shed a tear?

I choose to be that hope-filled boy

waving with undemanding joy

to the urban indifference,

waiting for a moment’s chance

that someone will be brave,

return his wave. And it’s true: I do.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes

No matter
how contagious
the lyric,
I’m not sure
what it means.

Diamonds on the soles of her shoes?

Sounds luxurious,
makes sleeping
on the street
rather than

Even though
I remain
in the dark
as to what
it really means,
I’m pretty sure
it doesn’t apply
to me.

Unwanted scuff
where I’ve been.
My mark,
nothing like
shiny diamonds.
If I’ve got anything,
it’s common coal.

Not even
mundane mica
flaking off
a Hanzel & Gretta trail,
so you might
one day
find me.

Too often
there’s dog shit
stuck in the treads
of my unremarkable shoes.

On better days,
it’s mucky mud
insinuated in the soles
of this lonely soul,
now & always messy.

Dead Beneath his Rescue

Dispatcher voice becomes
cold blood, sweat, then pulse.
Sending him too close to home.

He pounds his father’s chest.

Inexplicably, his arms lengthen.
He is cartoon, the lop-headed drawing of himself
and the small Saturday-morning boy, jaw agape
at the doomed hijinx on the screen.

He is both compromised tether
and hard ball that rings the rusted pole,
wound ever tighter. Cut. Burn.

His force is certain, striking,…impotent.

Once he had been tremulous infant
in the arms of that crumpled man:
musk offering solace so deep
there was not even language,
just coo sinking into sinuous arms.

How dare the heavens demand this of him?

Heart chamber, now blue sanguine swell.
Broken ribs to brittle in furnace.
His own flesh, dead beneath his rescue.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Friday, May 16, 2008

Just Practice

He misses the gemstones

that brought him here.

Lapis lazuli, topaz, tourmaline.

Their crooked path intersperse

with crushed eggshell, rotting bark.

He sees through the glass pane,

palm sweats its own moist shadow:

once-there traces of once-there him.

There is little left but to laugh.

It is a hard game to play:

This love me now,

love me forever…

‘til I vanish.

Like the whole world isn’t listening,

she whispers, just practice.

Who is he to desire more volume?

His head is endlessly empty

except the beat of her pulse,

thrumming just under his skull.

Just practice and he imagines

great cities gleaming,

her thighs glistening,

a place to rest

after the waves sweep

the beach clean.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Passion Seat

Is it between your lips

all teeth, tongue, & gum,

tender soft, bone hard,

in the wide of your open mouth?

Is it in the crook of your neck,

stark hollow that surfaces

as you strain, then rage?

Or the crevice of bridge & nostril,

that place that makes your face

your face?

Where is your passion?

Where does it sit?

In the groove, the fire

beneath your own finger,

curious, furious, alone?

Under the hard arrogance

of steady foot to heel,

brisk, troubled

in the night’s diamond pigment?

Or can it be found

between thick thumb

with square nail armor

& the calloused tent

of your index finger?

Pen leaking shambled messages.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ultimate Snapshots


Leap up.

Flat palms:

snapping jaws.


fall to ground, upstanding.

Twist, then sent disc gone.



One foot cement pole.

The other,

nervy amusement park ride,

centrifuge gone willy nilly.


The cleat offers no assurance:

slip he does

inadvertent limbo

beneath the aloof disc.


Fade. Psych. Send.

No bit of elbow,

just ricochet wrist.




Pound ground.

Disc does not notice.


Surge. Sink. Grace.

Lends itself to flight,

air and gravity’s proof.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Artifact of Provocation, Mischief video clip

On April 12, as part of the Middle-Aged Freaks of the Spoken Word: Poetry from the Gut reading at the Invisible Fountain in Easthampton, Massachusetts I read this and two other poems (also on YouTube). It was a fun night with many poets from the Florence Poets Society reading.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

New Same Grief

She does not yet

share my curves.

Nor will she ever.

Another woman’s bodystory

best guesses when first blood

will engorge, trickle, then seep.

She will wear the echo

of some other woman’s body.

Its reverberation is the one

that chimes my daughter’s bodyclock

of egg drop, of bud burst.

It is the new same grief.

Like when I couldn’t name her,

she who came to me

two days past two

and quite already

the whole of her given name.

It is the new same grief.

Like when I had to reply

I don’t know

What was my first word?

When did I learn to walk?

I don’t know how come

she couldn’t be a live-with mommy?

Blood. Bone. Body.

These bounded things

that wither away.

My solace –

large enough,

and more:

though body

may forever

be mystery,

not she.

Not her love.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Monday, April 7, 2008

Murder by Broken Heart

“Gorillas in zoos around the nation, particularly males and those in their 20s and 30s,

have been falling ill – and sometimes dying suddenly – from progressive heart ailments.”

(Associated Press, April 7, 2008)

So many have died.

The newspaper offers

a litany of names:








For their own good

they said.

To save them from lost habitat

they said.

To keep them from poachers

they said.

So that we might protect them

they said.

Heart muscle,

increasingly constrictive.

Halting lifeblood,

increasingly bound.

Over and over again,

pernicious pattern,

zoos all around.

So they invented a big name for it,

all latin cognate, scientific jargon:

fibrosing cardiomyopathy.

Pretense of tragic disease.

Highfalutin, fancy-ass, gibberish.

Who’s kidding who?

We don’t need a poet

working wonders of metaphor

to see that this is nothing but

murder by broken heart.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Friday, April 4, 2008

MLK Jr. haiku

now forty years on
still spring weeps poverty, war
King is dead and gone

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

blind white

blind white, not descending fog,
manufacturing murky mess,
but melting snow
caught upward
on way
to liquid
not nearly

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Poet in Time of War

…except that blood tends to obliterate words.

(The Poem in Time of War by Sherman Pearl)

Visiting from out of town

a local overhears

the reason I am here.

She asks so you’re a poet?

This statement never fails to stymie me.

I do my best to respond,

eeking out the correct gradient of humility.

Unimpressed with my self-involved stammer

she generously remarks

but everyone’s a poet, right?

I know the polite reply

is benevolent laugh,

easy approval

of this naive truism.

I don’t buy it.

Hitler may very well have written

love poems to Eva Braun,

precise in meter, correct Germanic syntax,

but that does not him a poet make.

Radovan Karadžić was published –

children’s poetry no less!

Not so good, I hear, but that matters little.

If there were an exclusive society of poets

he could be safely drummed out.

Though the poet’s tool

is pithy word use,

Dick Cheney’s retorts,

no matter how

pared past essentials,

could never


constitute a poetic


What then is a poet? What then is a poem?

Sherman Pearl says it is a brief on behalf of the living,

a paper megaphone for the voices of the dead.

I say a poet draws a line

with words & images & metaphors,

simile thrown in for good measure.

I say a poet creates possibility

with repetition, alliteration, rhythm.

A poet places a flower

in the rifle’s barrel.

Poets do not waterboard.

Some have been & always will be

soliders in war, but they do not wage war,

they do not rage war.

A poet whispers, states, screams

No more!

Never again!

Not in our name!

A poet may not always use facts,

but always tells the truth.[1]

Poets craft word, after word, after chain of words,

as we step into night seeping around us,

our hearts pulsing crimson fists.

Poets offer what we have. No more, no less.

With uncertainty, out of dire need and with every intention

that no more blood flow in the streets,

that no more words be obliterated.

[1] A quote attributed to Maya Angelou.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sweetest Hangover: Ode to Split this Rock!

Don’t you hear this hammer ring?

I’m gonna split this rock

And split it wide!

When I split this rock,

Stand by my side.

(Langston Hughes)

Could have swapped spit

with the cute wild haired poet.

That’s how high I was, how happy.

He’s the one who sat up against me,

shoulder to shoulder at the open mic,

amid the expanse of open seats.

Who said I’m not coming onto you.

Said I’ve got a girlfriend at home.

He followed me to the Metro station,

said he didn’t. Still, there he was.

Me, I’ve got a poetry hangover.

If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it.

If there’s a remedy, I’ll run from it.

I’ve got the sweetest hangover.

Not an ounce of liquor in my system,

no smack, no maryjane, this is the real thing.

Got drunk on Mark Doty & the murdered gay boy he brought back to life.

All sugared up on Naomi Shihab Nye’s mamool cookies,

still wiping away the powdered sugar, dates, nuts

from the clumsy front of my blouse.

Boozed up on Snookie Johnson’s wiley shit at the military recruiters’ office.

I’m no Diana Ross

singing some silly disco trash.

(That might be Regie Cabico,

but I don’t wanna say diva shit

when it’s not mine to be saying.)

I’ve got the sweetest hangover.

I don’t wanna get over

Sweetest hangover.

Intoxicated by Patricia Smith‘s smoldering self,

tingling with sex & sanity & righteous rage.

Martín Espada’s baritone repeats, resounds, rejoices in my head,

like I’m fumbling & stumbling en la calle San Sebastián.

Dennis Brutus, his real life story splitting real rocks,

not metaphorical Langston Hughes poetics,

nearly sobers me up…but not quite.

Poetry is what got me sloshed, pissed, got me hopped up.

Still poetry-drunk on the late subway ride,

a homeless woman asks for 75 cents.

Out of my pocket, three coins;

I place them in her soft palm.

As I do, she admires my ring.

I give that away, too.

She thinks I’m shitting her.

I tell her I want nothing in return.

She rummages her bags, intent on reciprocity,

so we engage in sweet Southern barter, sweet Southern banter.

Call it what you will: plastered, besotted, soused.

If there’s a cure for this, we don’t want it.

If there’s a remedy, we’ll run from it.

We’ve got the sweetest hangover.

For this imbibing

in politics & people & poetry,

there was a hammer ringing,

but no splitting headache.

Instead, we split the rock;

we split it wide.

Karen G. Johnston


Mark Doty read his poem, “Charlie Howard's Descent,” the actual STR reading can be found at

Naomi Shihab Nye's poem, “Gate A-4,” is from the book, Honeybee (2008); she read it as her parting gift on the first evening of the festival.

Snookie Johnson is a character that Kenny Carroll has invented for his poem, SNOOKIE JOHNSON GOES DOWN TO THE RECRUITER'S OFFICE NEAR BENNING ROAD & STARTS SOME SHIT, which can be found at

Martín Espada read marvelously his poem, En la calle San Sebastián, from his book, Alabanza: New & Selected Poems

Dennis Brutus is a poet from South Africa who organized to ban that country from participation in the 1970 Olympics because of the Apartheid regime. He was jailed for his actions, imprisoned on Robbin Island with Nelson Mandela, and had to break rocks as part of his imprisonment.

Patricia Smith is just plain kick-ass. More about her can be found at

Regie Cabico was one of the STR! festival organizers and ran the open mics with grace, humor, and no small amount of liquor.