Sunday, November 15, 2009

There Is No Fixing It

I have an eye that weeps.
It started a decade ago,
increases with each passing year.
Cold air sets it off.

It is a biologic process,
one not dependent upon tender feeling,
yet this poet’s eye cannot help
but see metaphor everywhere,
even when blurred by unbidden tears.

Should there exist
a medical intervention
to cease the steady flow,
I think I would decline it.

Why shouldn’t I cry?
Cherubic baby’s face emerges
from behind father’s shoulder,
so evident her dead mother’s visage.
Belligerent fifteen-year-old disappears
with her infant, having been, for years,
pimped out by her cousin.

Shouldn’t we all be allowed to weep?
Public radio matter-of-factly promises
to tell me about the corpse trade in Iraq.
Glow of the sun turns poison,
the least among us most harmed,
but none of us saved.

I am not supposed to allow
the luxury of despair
to leave me paralytic.
I will try.

Nevertheless, allthesame,
I weep.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Today’s Guest House

I do not court disenchantment,
yet she is at the door.

I could shut her out,
close curtains, cut the lights,
sit in the furthest corner,
Pendleton wool covering my shoulders,
rocking back and forth.

Even the thought of it is soothing.

I could.

I won’t.

At the gesture of my open palm,
I wonder what she will do,
as she crosses the threshold.

I will not tighten my arms to my trembling torso,
but wrap them around her graceful waist,
usher her in with a ballroom twirl of surrender
to the mystery my teacher tells me to embrace.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Friends in their Forties

for Tom

Shafts of Indian summer
warm your face,
my neck.

You speak
of your mother,
ever the parent,
even until the very end,
showing all of you
how to pass
with grace.

As we hugged good-bye,
I said with my truest breath,
we have only thirty years.

Only thirty years
to work out
some similar feat.

We should start
figuring out now
how to die.

I meant it.

I mean it still.
And I mean, too,
that maybe
we have
only until

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ode to Otis

Such joy, beholding this creature
attempting to scale river rocks
without success, yet he is not
one bit discouraged.

He and I have known
each other only
seven weeks now.
At first he found
all the gaps in our old
wire fence and he ran.

Ran he did,
just five days after we
brought him home from the shelter.
I spent a long hour in despair of his return.

Return he did, and now he runs less often.
We have repaired most of the escape routes,
but clearly not yet all.

Still he does not often run away,
he just lies in the fall sun, content.

This morning, Indian summer full upon us,
we walk along the pristine gorge.
Despite the sign’s order otherwise,
I have taken off the leash.
His harness and collar jingle ~
he is by no means a wild thing,
this boy who craves my love ~
but he chooses his own direction.

Much to my delight,
it is always
the same as mine.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Our Own Potter's Field

Thick scaly bark, these trees are old.
Impossible to know just how old,
since yew boughs hollow as they age.
Three make a canopy of bright berries,
crimson constellations suspended overhead.
As guides, these stars aren’t much use.

All parts of the plant are so poisonous,
save the dark seed within each red star,
that after ingestion, symptoms leading to death ~
staggering gait, muscle tremors, spasms ~
are often missed before terminal collapse.
Horses are most vulnerable, none but birds are safe.

Next to me, the cold bench memorializes
the burial ground this serene hillside might be.
I can’t help but wonder about the dying patients
from the State Lunatic Hospital at Northampton.
No rapid onset: only slow convulsed demise, largely unnoted.

Just a few days ago, I marveled at how the next field over
used to hold an abundance of pumpkins in September,
then late October, a bevy of children learning
the fine art of New England gleaning.
How one year there was a ragged La-Z-Boy ~
some collegiate prank or attempted performance art.
Around here, you can never be sure.
Now the meadow rolls, four shades
of green, one dappled lavender.

Some will not even consider purchase of a house
on the village hill two over from this one.
The collisions of beleaguered spirits too much
for the harmony of hearth and home.

Unsure if this is meditation or lamentation,
I set down novice feet, one after the other.
Heel, ball, toe. H e e l, b a l l, t o e.
Underneath: collapsed dirt has wended its way
from bone to soil, sinew to loam, flesh to earth.
I wonder how to make luminous these toxic rubies:
those just over my head in the sentinel trees,
those deep below my feet in each and every unmarked grave.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

At What Moment does Shadow Define Light?

Fox bisecting field
along snow-spattered wall.

Breeze moving lanky willow wisp,
trail of effervescent grey
on pond surface below.

That night, long ago,
when I held her hand,
long after the other
had given me her heart.

Some say
one does not exist
without the other.

If true, is it
each time I avert
my eyes from
a seeking suitor

my earlier betrayal
that makes more brilliant
this fidelity to you?

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

I am a Fool Touched by This World

When all the girls,
green and blue both,
drop to one collective knee
until the downed player
catches her wind,
stands wobbly but sure,
amid the applause scatter.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Peace Pagoda (September 16, 2009)

Brackish water
mottled with lily pads
the color of green beans,
rust, day-old dog shit,

A cluster shimmies ~
one, then the next, shakes.
This one pulses,
that one acts like a cog:
brief urgent forward,
only to settle back.

The Jesus bugs
are here, as hoped,
skimming water,
barely a ripple
reveals them.

The longer I look,
the more there is
to see.

Frogs I thought
curiously absence
are, in fact, not:
Just my ability
to perceive them
until a half hour
has adjusted me
to the quiet
of this place.

Decay, too, is here:
soothing and ominous.
Pine needles lost
from their mother tree
are now spindly floats
that will eventually sink.

Down is where
I cast my eyes
to find suspended forms
of agile orange
wend their way
in the water.

A single dragonfly
just entered
and exited
the scene.

And always ~
always ~
this wind,
this breath.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Partial Will Come to an End

1 Corinthians 13:10 (NSRV)
for KBW

In grief’s suspension of reality,
disbelief blooms floridly.

Stray sense of right, of wrong
fills the void when breath catches,
when tears well, just before overflow,
when moan is only bitter taste
about to ladder its way out.

Fleeting interval of partial forgetting,
suggests that death is not what it is:
commonplace, ordinary, everyday.

Second only to birth, and barely that.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Something is Broken

It is not bone.
Not my heart.
Not a beloved’s body,
not even a stranger’s.

Unfamiliar peace below
as shards tumble
in this latest ocean:
now stormy,
eventually calm,
always and ever moving.

So much collision
becomes sea glass.
It cannot help itself.

All broken things mend:
bones knit,
skin scabs over,
hearts love anew,
or they don’t.

Even shattered glass
finds its way
into mosaic,
different from bottle
but still,


(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bread & Roses -- Star Style

Here is the service/sermon that I crafted as part of the Youth Chapel held at the International Affairs Conference on Star Island on Friday, July 24, 2009.

As part of my love of Star Island, I volunteer direct a week-long youth program (60 kids ages 18 months to 18 years!) and get to create a chapel service at the end of our time together.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Deftly Hearing Music (REDUX)

Today I gave a sermon -- recycled, and I'd like to think improved -- from a homily last summer. T

Friday, July 10, 2009

No Proportation In Love

…no justice in it. (Gilead, Marianne Robinson)

Bear stunned:
tranquilizer to hind side.
Agile scientists scurry close;
opportunity to collect data

Before any tagging
or temperature taking
or blood titrating,
an ocular smear.

Narcotic that pacifies
does not shut the eyes.

Just you try
to keep your eyes open,
nineteen seconds,
or a mere twelve.
Evolutionary blink,
mammalian protection,
against corrosion,
burning, damage.

Say a humble hosanna.

Love bursting on the scene,
we said eyes wide open.
On our second date, you declared
not only your smitten state,
but most all of your serious foibles,
including this one, now,
abrasive in our midst.

Where, then, dearheart,
is my smear?

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Simple Intention, Muddled Implementation

Hour drive together.
Door slams, peace abraded.
Swollen boy eyes, try once again,
He goes his way, I go mine.
For both, salve.

He’ll sprawl a few hours on crusty couch,
Amid arms, legs of other 15 year olds.
Enough joy to shout the shadows away.

Me: right place, wrong shoes.
Water laps, birdsong, mosquito thrum unabated,
Breeze dances green before my eyes.

To each, salve.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Monday, June 1, 2009

Inbetween Times: Who We Are For Each Other

Here is the link to my latest sermon, which I gave yesterday:

And here is the link to the Reflections by Lynne Marie Wanamaker, who also gave a sermon as a part of the same service:

Thursday, May 21, 2009

For My Love Who Finds No Sleep

There is no hour
on this ragged jewel
when someone
is not sleeping.

Except you.

On, off, on, off
then again on,
the world sombulates.
It is the hum that undergirds
triumphant kingdoms,
frenzied chaos,
installations of kindness
cruel skirmishes.

Yet, dawn is the seep
at your bedroom window
finding you awake.

You seek this muse
who recluses herself from you,
amoral in her absence.

Your long story together
is one of tentative attraction
though the past few months,
more enmity manifest.

Sometimes I think of you
as unrequited lover,
all thumbs, all left feet,
stumbling as you try
to win her affection.

(Your courting of me
more winning
than this fickle paramour
whom you need
so much more.)

I am not jealous.

Were that I Cyrano to your Roxanne.
More the Steve Martin version,
with its Hollywood happy ending,
than the original French,
which is heartrending,
through and through.

I could be vehicle of words
which would marry you,
perfect intonation
of mystical incantation
begetting your bedding beside her
each and every night,
start to finish,
dusk to dawn.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Our First Weekend Away (Cortelyou Road Station)

Luxury discovery
of new islands
in this archipelago
lava evolving life
we are encrusting.

Weekend’s abundance
affords us afternoon nap.
We needn’t be fucking
or watching the telly
or conversing
all the time.

There is time enough
for bamboo shades-drawn siesta,
bodies naked and at ease.

I have just discovered
that you do not fall off
to an easy forty winks,
the slant of urban sky
precursing spring dusk.

You chortle at the day’s small delights.
You rail against the stupidity of others,
you heavy sigh at the dumb luck
of avoiding the Bridge of Snarled Traffic.

I leave the skiff
we’ve steered here –
just long enough
to fill the brown notebook
you find so charming.

I return to the bed we share,
breath steady from your mouth just ajar.
I rub the rough studded line
from your skull to your bottom,
palm of my hand curved and content.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Metal May Well Revert

for Naomi

to its natural state.
Rust, oxidation, salt hastening
its back, back, back to earth.

Bone is less exact.
Fractured, yes, even broken,
it returns: bone to bone,
parts to whole.

It is written
dust to dust.
So it is with bone,
shards turn porous,
devoured by bacteria,
time, our fading memories.

Shattered, however,
it becomes metal
not via its own volition,
but surgical intervention.

Carbon composite,
eventual, actual stardust,
the stuff of which heavens are made:
one moment expanding nebula,
same moment elderly mother’s broken hip
all night on cold linoleum --
she didn’t want to be a bother.

Her stardust does not heal like it once did.
Her mind does not recollect like it used to.
All that iron, zinc, copper, nickel trace:
once loamy soil, then homegrown kale,
then heart, tendon, lung, bone.
None of it, what it used to be.
Until she reverts back
to her natural state,
Alice remains.

Turns out we are all
scatter and combine,
the dust she once was,
is now, ever will be.

The time will come,
when you will grieve,
your tears will make mud,
your fingers smearing
the stuff of her body,
the life of yours,
the whole of the universe
on the wall of our mutual world,
marking our coming,
marking our going.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Personal Detritus (A Love Song in Five Parts)

Skin cells scatter.
Toe nail chips.
Stray hairs cling to shirt fabric.

I am falling apart.

Each year, a little more.
Each day, each moment.

So are you.

Fear is the fluid
you swim before sleeping.
Yet sleep eludes you,
leaving you long alone.

I find you heroic,
suspended against
persuasive pull,
aiming to assemble yourself
on high dry ground.

I cannot be all that you long for.

Simple, tinged with regret,
what I offer may well
feel meager to you,
but it is, nevertheless, true.

I will give you all I can;
I will not let you suck me dry.
You have so many worries,
so many doubts. Let this
not be one of them.

Oh, that I could convey
all of this, any of this
without inevitable sting.

Pieces of you,
elements far flung,
proximally dropped,
have Hansel & Greteled a path.

You are collecting --
recollecting –
your own flotsam.

I offer my jetsam.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Belly Beguile Swell Swoop

Swell of paved hill protrudes,
but does not block
what damp night reveals.

Underarch, swoop, concave --
insulated cables monkey swing
from one once-tree to the next.
Tarnished bright by headlights,
distorted in the mist of once-snow,
light dances the stillness.

I think aloud in a whisper:
I have never seen this before.

Hard to believe
given more than forty years
on this giant geode.
Forty years
in cities, towns, rural lanes.
This cannot be new.

Like this love is not new.

But is,
like the crossing
over, through, beyond
I found in your bed
mere hours ago.
Your cradling my middle-age swell,
belly so beguiling to you,
glow dancing between
our stilled, shared breath.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Friday, March 6, 2009

menstrual amnesia

every sunday morning
engaged 12-year-olds thrill me
with their ambivalent absorption
forcing such compelling questions:
would i be the same person
if my gender/sex were different?

invisible hormones seep
they mount monthly attack
reliable like clockwork
yet always surreptitious
catching me off guard
each new moon

last night was involumable accusation
such force it still shook the telephone line.

this morning brown spots
cotton between my thighs --
all i want to do is apologize

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, March 1, 2009


You tend towards secrets
so secretly.
Such is the secret,
this time around,
you keep it even from yourself.

I’ve met you before,
though we’d not been introduced
til we kissedcaressedfuckedsighed
this time around.

I always meet you.

You are my inevitable, indisputable, irrefutable proof --
should I need any this time around --
of karmadharmamettadivineuniversalenergy.

This time around,
I ruminate perseverate infuriate compensate.
A dog chasing her tail --
endearing foolish futile holy puppyhood.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Saturday, February 14, 2009

My Valentine to You

after Marge Piercy

The pain is intolerable.
I can’t do it, you say, it’s killing me.

Implosion moments away.
End approaches,
Death hovers,
Personal apocalypse taunts.

Yet your veins still pulse
Your heart beats,
Lungs inhale.

Perhaps out of spite.

Perhaps merely to fortify you
For the next round of heartache.

Thomas Moore offers words of consolation
About the bounds of sorrow and heaven’s place.

They fall as flat
as the greeting card
on which they belong.

Your equanimity long gone,
Even Buddha’s thoughts seem over-rated.

You surmise
they lived too early to know true suffering.
that among its many accomplishments,
modernity must have advanced emotional misery.

Then your dear friend’s words
land absurdly near you --
Celebrate Valentine’s Day:
The day when a saint was beheaded
His severed body dragged
Through the streets of Rome.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Friday, February 6, 2009


I believe in the power of equilibrium in nearly all things.

Though my horoscope means blather to me, I find there is something to the Libran symbol of the scale. I see it in my two adopted children, once nearly stolen from each other. Even when I first met them and they were still little – one just two, one nearly four years old – they unknowingly balanced each other. They still do:
• When one is having an foot-stomping meltdown, the other becomes the epitome of perfect progeny.
• Where one feels the need to wash his laundry once per month (at most), the other loads the washer nearly daily with clothes barely worn but somehow in need of sanitizing.

It is not just in my children with which this instinctual, natural, unavoidable tendency manifests. I see it when groups are smarter than the individuals in it. I see it in what we are calling a “recession”, when, in fact, we are coming ‘round right after too long among the irrationally exuberant.

Another example, as certain as Swiss timing: should I stay up until midnight three or four nights in a row, one night to visit with my beloved, another to write a poem, the third to waste on insipid, yet enthralling, computer games, surely a sore throat and clogged sinuses will dog me into an early bed time. The more egregious the late night foray, the more likely a sick day from work will become necessary. The body craves health and demands its due.

The only place I do not see the pull towards equilibrium at work – and this is where my fervent hope and prayer come in, that my vision is limited by my earthy humanity – is peace. Out of defiant resignation, I only see us careening away from her, not arcing back towards what some say is a patient woman, awaiting our begging forgiveness.

I would like to write otherwise. I would like to write something to warm your (and my) heart, give you real sense of hope, give it to myself. But it is out of my purview and sometimes, even out of my imagination. I fear we’ve tipped too far this warming planet. Sad to say, I believe more the reports that say we are already over the edge than the ones that give me tips for reducing my carbon footprint.

Yet, somehow, -- and this is where Mystery enters in – this has not stopped me in my strides for peace. In high school, I began collecting quotes. Phrases, paragraphs, poems, passages which caught my attention. By college, I came across this passage by Elissa Melamed, the origin of which has been lost to me for several decades now:
I don’t know how long we have. We have to do this work because we believe in peace and in building peace. We start with ourselves, our communities: our circles get larger. If the bomb falls tomorrow, there’s something so valid about living this way, that we would live this way anyway.
I suppose that’s the rub, the saving grace, the zen koan. I still ride my bike, with its panniers to carry my groceries. I still buy many of my family’s clothes second hand as an act of recycling that also meets our need for frugality. I still garden organically, buy locally, keep the heat low in the house, write on scratch paper, write to my senators about Gaza, about bailouts, about government-sanctioned torture.

If the world is going to veer wildly towards its own implosion (something long ago depicted in Hindu legend…), a sure tipping out of balance, a ship’s bough rising skyward before certain plunge seaward, somehow I am one of those passengers running against gravity, sometimes racing frantically, sometimes ambling measuredly, in hopes that my little efforts might tip the ship back onto buoyant water, back to balance.

I pray to meet you, and many others, there.

Karen G. Johnston

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Don't Pick the Scab

And see how the flesh grows back/ across a wound, with a great vehemence,/
more strong/ than the simple, untested surface before.
There's a name for it on horses, /when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh.

(Jane Hirschfield, For What Binds Us)

I didn't much like you when we first met.

Enigma you were, you remain.

Drawn to you, yet, your tendency

towards shock for shock's sake

seemed self indulgent,

self-centered, self serving.

You are anything but self serving.

Don't pick the scab.

Momentary flicker of involuntary love,

diluted in the unkept promise of shared dance floor,

distilled in later spark of idiosyncratic poem.

I cannot help being anything less: air, freak, control, knob.

You, either: chaos, volume, noise, nondescript.

No rosewater to soften that scab.

Leave it on. I want that scab to stay.

I want to wrap the scab,

no common gauze but rather

linen bleached by sun,

softened by grit and grain.

I want to wrap you, your scab,

every inch of your proud flesh.

Hard-won, raised flesh.

May your skin may never thin,

may it never burst, be injured, explode,

freeze, collapse, implode.

My murmured blessing to you, Captain.

Don't pull off the scab.

Yes, you fall in love.

at every check out counter

I see this in you and praise it.

Knew that once I was your cashier

and blushed.

I see this in you

and I praise all of you.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

January Outrage (Poem for Oscar Grant) -- text

January Outrage (Poem for Oscar Grant)

Tell me something/what you think would happen if
everytime they kill a black boy/then we kill a cop
everytime they kill a black man/then we kill a cop
you think the accident rate would lower/subsequently?

(Poem about Police Violence, June Jordan)

Do we really believe
having a Black president
is going to keep city cops
from kicking off the new year
by killing another 17-year-old Black kid,
prone on subway platform,
one officer's knee at his neck,
another’s gunfire in his back?

For real?!?

Once he's sitting behind that ornate desk,
Oval Office all oval-y around him,
after he for sure closes Gitmo down
on that very first day,
is the next decree really gonna be
No more murders of cops,
No more murders by cops?

I think of the late, magnificent June Jordan –
What if for every one of us, we get one of them?

Seems like Olmert listened,
but he mixed it all up:
What if for every one of us,
we massacre a hundred of them?
What if for every one missile landing here,
we raze all of Gaza? What if?

Suppose we apply some similar logic
to the No Banker Left Behind bailout:
what if for every ten Wall Street louts,
we save one Joe-six-pack from foreclosure?
Just one. What if?

This morning I spied
graffiti on a passing train,
Islam Sucks! stung my eyes.
Here's some presidential decree,
I'd like to see
No graffiti unless it builds us,
not builds walls among us!


Not one dime
‘til it’s counted
& accountable
& twice as much
flows to the bottom
as rises to the top.


Empire, schmempire.
Let’s learn & love & laugh & lust & labor.
Let’s keep it juicy, let’s vibrate.
Let’s dance & delight. Let’s disarm.

What if?

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

January Outrage (Poem for Oscar Grant) -- YouTube

Here's the YouTube version of the poem. I hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Role Modeling for New Meditators

Perfect posture.
Lotus position.
Serene countenance.
Motionless hands.

Silence. Stillness. Equanimity.


Startling to sound.
Distracted and distracting.
Scratching my butt.
Restless feet, hands.
Eyes shut,
then open,
then closed,
then one last peek.

Clumsy. Unfocused. Imperfect.

Sure message:
If I sit here,
you can too.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

So Many Odes to the Full Moon

Or the fingernail crescent.
Even the moon so new,
it remains visible
to none of us.

But what about this moon?

Shining over the Hess gas station
illuminating soiled snow,
the stippering drunkard,
my mittened hand?

It is two days past whole --
uneven, warped, imperfect.

More lovely than any I have ever beheld.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Monday, January 5, 2009

Blood of Christ

With the enthusiasm of a red-corpuscled drunkard
in mystical Irish pub at closing time,
the priest in full vestments
drains the last bit of the blood of Christ.

How unabashed!

Amid prim & proper parishioners
up & down & in unison
as sanctioned by centuries
of utterly correct bishops.

Below polished crucifix,
before entire congregation,
ablution concludes
with unadorned cloth.

Yet, what else to do with the last bit of messianic remnant?

Would it not be worse
to empty it elsewhere,
this liquid lifeline
to the true believers?

Better to whet the gullet
of the white-robed priestman
than dribble down the sides
of any ritualized receptacle,
perhaps made holy by the wine,
but nevertheless, wasted.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston