Jenny Johnson received an MA in teaching from the University of Virginia and an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of In Full Velvet (Sarabande Books, 2017). She has received numerous awards and scholarships, including a 2015 Whiting Award and a 2016–2017 Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox
Tonight at a party we will say farewell
to a close friend’s breasts, top surgery for months
she’s saved for. Bundled close on a back step,
we wave a Bic lighter and burn her bra.
At first struggling to catch nylon aflame,
in awe we watch as all but the sheer black
underwire melts before forming a deep
quiet hole in the snow.
Sometimes the page
too goes quiet, a body that we’ve stopped
speaking with, a chest out of which music
will come if she’s a drum flattened tight, if she’s
a canvas pulled across a frame, a field
where curves don’t show, exhalation without air.
Then this off-pitch soprano steals through.
Then this off-pitch soprano steals through
a crack that’s lit. A scarlet gap between
loose teeth. Interior trill. We’re rustling open.
Out of a prohibited body why
long for melody? Just a thrust of air,
a little space with which to make this thistling
sound, stretch of atmosphere to piss through when
you’re scared shitless. Little sister, the sky
is falling and I don’t mind, I don’t mind,
a line a girl, a prophet half my age,
told me to listen for one summer when
I was gutless, a big-mouthed carp that drank
down liters of algae, silt, fragile shale
while black-winged ospreys plummeted from above.
While black-winged ospreys plummeted from above,
we were born beneath. You know what I mean?
I’ll tell you what the girls who never love
us back taught me: The strain within will tune
the torqued pitch. In 1902 the last
castrato sang “Ave Maria.”
His voice—a bifurcated swell. So pure
a lady screams with ecstasy, Voce
Bianco! Breath control. Hold each note. Extend
the timbre. Pump the chest, that balloon room,
and lift pink lips, chin so soft and beardless,
a flutter, a flourish, a cry stretching beyond
its range, cruising through four octaves, a warbler,
a starling with supernatural restraint.
A starling with supernatural restraint,
a tender glissando on a scratched LP,
his flute could speak catbird and hermit thrush.
It was the year a war occurred or troops
were sent while homicide statistics rose;
I stopped teaching to walk out, my arms linked
to my students’ to show a mayor who didn’t
show. Seven hundred youth leaned on adults
who leaned back. We had lost another life
to a bullet in the Fillmore, Sunnyside,
the Tenderloin. To love without resource
or peace. When words were noise, a jazz cut was steel.
I listened for Dolphy’s pipes in the pitch dark:
A far cry. Epistrophy. A refusal.
A far cry. Epistrophy. A refusal.
A nightingale is recorded in a field
where finally we meet to touch and sleep.
A nightingale attests
as bombers buzz and whir
overhead en route to raid.
We meet under cover of brush and dust.
We meet to revise what we heard.
The year I can’t tell you. The future restages
the past. Palindrome we can’t resolve.
But the coded trill, a fever ascending,
a Markov chain, discrete equation,
generative pulse, sweet arrest,
bronchial junction, harmonic jam.
Bronchial junction, harmonic jam,
her disco dancing shatters laser light.
Her rock rap screamed through a plastic bullhorn
could save my life. Now trauma is a remix,
a beat played back, a circadian pulse you can’t shake,
inherent in the meter we might speak,
so with accompaniment I choose to heal
at a show where every body that I press against
lip syncs: I’ve got post-binary gender chores . . .
I’ve got to move. Oh, got to move. This box
is least insufferable when I can feel
your anger crystallize a few inches away,
see revolutions in your hips and fists.
I need a crown to have this dance interlude.
I need a crown to have this dance interlude
or more than one. Heating flapjacks you re-
read “Danse Russe,” where a man alone and naked
invents a ballet swinging his shirt around
his head. Today you’re a dandier nude
in argyle socks and not lonely as you
slide down the hall echoing girly tunes
She-bop doo wop . . . an original, domestic
butch. The landlord is looking through
the mini-blinds. Perched on a sycamore,
a yellow-throated warbler measures your
schisms, fault lines, your taciturn vibrato.
Tonight, as one crowd, we will bridge this choir.