Sunday, October 24, 2010

Breaking the Rules of Polite Company

A giggle, so innocent
at your own social impropriety.
Giggle because you have called
yourself great, aloud.

You remember only just after
that there are rules about such things,
that we are not supposed to say
these thoughts aloud.

You correct your self-referential self,
“More true would be to say Alice thinks she’s great.”

I ask your age –
another breaking of social etiquette.
You tell me two possibilities,
plus the year of your birth,
which coincides with neither.

I say, aloud,
“Even more accurate would be that Karen thinks Alice is great.”

This delights you.
You giggle anew,
the girl you once were,
eight decades ago,
sitting beside me
when we arrive
at your destination.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Vanishing Alice

These times
I am only what
we are together.

I am not
your daughter’s beloved friend
granddaughter’s mentor
your occasional preacher.

I am
car ride,
driver from one place to the next,
possibility of conversation.

I am
undemanding attention,
delight in the you of you.

And when
I drop you off,
at the place
of your arrival,
I am
no longer.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Let the Foul Harpies Starve

The Harpies, feeding then upon its leaves,
Do pain create, and for the pain an outlet.
(H.W. Longfellow’s translation of
Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto XIII)

May their incessant
appetite remain unsated,
let them be sickened
at first taste,
let their feet catch fire
should they try to land
on the hearth
of your branches.

Let them find
sustenance elsewhere.
Perhaps among those
who damned you
without ever meeting you,
who taunted you
from afar and
to your face,
those who denounced you
before you were even born.

This knotting and twisting
we inflicted upon you
in this worldly hell,
forced within narrow confines
of who should love whom,
may it have ended the moment
you took your own life.

May you find the friends,
the allies, even the foes,
who know your true light,
and reflect it,
bright, shining,

May you find
not only the peace,
we could somehow
not afford you,
not only the justice
we denied you,
but the loving lover
meant just for you,
meant to make you
laugh ‘til you cry
and when you are crying,
make you laugh belly-busting
hiccupping guffaws.

May you find that lover
meant to hold you,
to embrace the all of you,
the whole of you,
and most assuredly,
the queer of you.

Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Friday, July 9, 2010

Independence Day

for Kate

There were early years
when it was not true
but I am your mother now.

I have been for fourteen
of these much troubled years,
you just this year
in your majority.

As I always have,
I will hold you in my arms.
I will drive you to the doctor
or the shelter
or the drug store for condoms.

I will feed you dinner,
buy you groceries,
pay your heat bill,
brush your hair out slow.

I’ll help you write your appointments on a calendar,
I’ll send for another insurance card
when you lose the one I just gave you.

I will listen to your stories,
even when you repeat yourself,
even when you contradict what you just said.

I will hold my tongue when you rant wildly,
I will offer gentle wisdom just when you might listen.
I will keep my phone on all night,
will read your angry texts,
and promise not to respond in kind.

I will lose sleep,
just as I have
since you were little
and scared of the night.

I will be the most reliable presence
you have ever known –
that will not change.

I will laugh with you,
watch chick-flicks with you,
while I paint your toes orange.
I will cook for you,
pray with and pray for you.

I will tell my friends about you,
about you and me, about my love for you,
about the young woman
you’re becoming,
about your confusion,
and mine.

I was when you lived with me,
I am when you plead with me,
I am ever more your mother.

But I am
no longer
your home.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I Loved You Before You were Tame

before you knew
I was your mother
after the confusion,
before the trust

I wrapped
my arms
my legs
holding you
no way
to hurt
you, me

I loved you
when you were wild
when the bottom
was unreliable
I coaxed
the crooked way
tried to make
the rough places

This day,
much later
we sit in
kitchen aglow
you laugh
at the stories
of then

oh then
was different

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Monday, April 19, 2010

love, i think of you throughout the day

sometimes conceptually,
sometimes viscerally.
love, i think of you throughout the day,
your absence is a presence for me,
a wrong presence,
because you belong here with me now,
a right presence,
because you are where you should be
(as long as you return).

love, i think of you throughout the day,
today, and the days before it.
i wallow in your absence,
a sow happy to have the cool mud
that comes from more time on my own.

and your absence stings,
a sore cavity awaiting your filling.
love, i think of you throughout the day,
today, and the days to come,
until you arrive here,

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Salve of Your Voice

Moonlight concentrates
the salve of your voice.
Morning glories surface
pastel-light on your face.
Sweat behind my knees
simmers mutual desires:
one that is now between us
as sheets pile at the end of the bed;
one which will find us here old together.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Quarter-Century Friends

Quarter-century friends
fumble virtually
towards conversation,
towards justice archaic
and utterly urgent.

I feel boastful one minute,
lesser the next.
Humility and determination
make such odd bedfellows.

One a reminder
of my soul,
the other
a manifestation:
each a dire message
that I live a life
not of my own making.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Big Lean

The teacher says, we tend to lean into
the future
, into the what’s-next, into
the make-it-happen.

Of which “we” she speaks, I’m not sure.
Wannabe Buddhists? All Americans?
Some Westerners? Upwardly-mobile people
who’ve been turned onto slowing down?

I know it can’t be everyone.
I went to high school with people
still on their glory-days chase.
They lean back, not forward.

Let me be more specific: I lean into the future.
By which I mean to say, I’ve spent my life leaning into it.
I’ve gotten pretty damn good at it:
I make a decent salary.
We have a roof over our heads.
I escaped the alcoholic haze of my childhood.
Some good has come of it.

The teacher says, we lean into the future.
When she says so, it’s clear it’s not the way to be.
Nevertheless, there I am: planning for the worst,
having learned – only later in life, and with great effort –
to hope for the best. All of it: leaning.

Today, however, I sit on buckwheat zafu,
eleven hours among comrades
in the being here, being now.
I notice I have been leaning
into the future and now, I guess,
it’s time to straighten up.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dead, My Father

Part I

My life has been easier
in these two decades’ absence.
A calmer, quieter urgency
to understand all that he brought.

Part II

I spent much of December
anticipating the date.

Even the first days
of the new year
had it on my mind.

Yet today is the tenth.
The day came & went.
Slipped my notice.

Another indication
that I am a better
committee member
prize fighter
dog walker
candle stick maker.

Nearly anything
than daughter.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Vanishing Alice

I stand before her, talking pleasantries.
She does not recognize me.

She once sought out my poetic craft.
She once knew me as her daughter’s dear friend.
She once could place me without any effort.

No more.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Homage on the Occasion of a Church Engulfed in Flames

Hand-me-down hymnals,
colors mismatched,
binding worn nearly bare,
pages yellow, soft. Gone.

Cushions filled with horse hair, straw.
So much more went into them ~
inadvertent blood prick,
graciously efforted sweat,
ancient and renewed tears.
None, not even remnant.
All gone.

Gone, too,
the pulpit,
the piano,
the pews.

Gone, the quilt
called stained glass,
called healing,
called blessed.

I am no lover of Christ.
Yet there are times
I have found myself,
wanting to walk with Jesus.
I have found him here
among you.

I had come
other times,
twice so dire
when divine calling
was too much
for these bones
to bear.

Now, in winter shadow
of single charred edifice,
the Parish House gathers
its motley crew,
some here since dawn,
others not seen in years.

Through distortion
of clear window panes,
the firefighters sentinel,
pacing the smolder
of what was lost.

Shepherd poet preaches,
We’ll keep our perspective.
(And the bell.)

No Haitian rumbling here,
yet the sound
of singing together,
of sighing together,
of seeking together,
is deafening,

making mute
any poem whispering
from this pen,
offered as tribute
to the gift
you are.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Saturday, January 16, 2010

How to Save a Life

Place compost closer
to the house,
not halfway down
the halfacre lawn.
Let winter say fie
to the effort,
the rotting food scraps
will be gleeful
in their internal
This year,
no worms will find
their fate as dry skins
on the cellar’s dirt floor.

Rake yellow asparagus
stalks away,
the blighted tomato
Do not burn.
Instead, place in
plastic bag, feed
the already-toxic landfill,
even if it sounds
very wrong
to do so.

How to save a life.

Get weekly news
from Peter Sagal and pals,
daily news
from Jon Stewart et al.
Laughter should outweigh
sorrow just enough
to keep the heart

Lay down sword
and shield,
lay down burden
by the riverside.
Then stop
the damn Congress
from funding more
troops to Afghanistan.

How to save a life.

(Okay, maybe not RSVP.)

Stay with him.
Comfort his clumsy
stumble-lorn despair.

Leave him.
Let him learn
the lonely lesson.

How to save a life.

Toss a coin.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Like Each Night, Wild and Inescapable

do you not close up
in hopes of opening again?
Do you not open,
in hopes that eventually,
if only temporarily,
you will close?

Life is treacherous,
stinging like the surprising
winter thorn.
It is bitter,
coffee on cold morning lips.
Full of empty promise,
adhering atmosphere
with the weight of its void.

Yet, thorns,
even those hidden
in the yarn of warm mitten,
and soft aging flesh,
avail themselves
to the tweezers' pinch.

And bitter taste at lover’s kiss
is not unexpected, thus
melts into pulsing honey.

Breath breathes
over and over,
dark or light,
day or night,
open and closed.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston


Even refrigerated,
the little pills --
two-decades old --
can’t bring him back.

They do, however,
ignite my story.

I am clear-sighted enough
not to tell his widow –
her need for dead-him
stronger than her love for still-here-me;
my not-need strong enough
for what-she-can, what-she-can’t.

So, instead I sit
with the fuzzy-headed
newly tumor-free aunt.
She grew up
in the same fear,
different damage.
She surfaces,
her sister sinks.

My uncle,
her husband,
walks, talks

The nitro
in his pocket
stands a chance
of working.

This is the one
worth keeping.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston