Allan Johnston (Ph.D., UC Davis) has had poems published in Americas Review, California Quarterly, Dickinson Review, and others. In 1991 he was a finalist for the Roberts Writing Award in Poetry. See other poetry published in Weber Studies by Allan Johnston: Vol. 6.2, Vol. 11.2, Vol. 17.0, and Vol. 19.3.
Woman with Cigarette
She talks, swinging her hand.
The smoke follows the conversation.
The smoke shows how she creates convections.
Around the sofa a carefree flow of words.
She leans forward in silence,
taps off an ash,
then rounds her mouth,
brings up the lipsticked end,
sucking and sending a waft of thought
out upward, easy,
away from the slant of the light
that billows under the lampshade.
In darker, restless knots
the breath has braided grey clots
that saunter by the curtain
behind her, sullen.
Does a cloud dissolve into a wall,
the way a body combs itself to bone?
Smoke binds with fabric, greying
pleasure or release, grace
or rigidity, pulling
away the face
under the grey cake of skin.
She snubs out all, thinking nothing
of the leaded ascension,
the scented line of pollution.
Takes another. Fires silence to life.
At Sam and Ed's
this waitress railroads
another hot plate
of fries under
the sad, gooey cream pies
mirrored on the wall
behind the counter,
then side-arms the grease
to a man who dilates
a half-smoked cigarette
hanging with years
of anger in it, look at
she dances in,
dishes out, in and out,
french fries, cigarettes,
gin, bennies, valium, coke,
the white cap and apron
over the earth brown
swamp mud and orangish
and sink, heat and compact
into loam, the careworn
nails hang autumnally
chipped and bitten
for nothing but passing
checks, a quick buck
or fuck if there
were a way of making it
she'd not be here
leaving butts afloat
in the carryout
she takes when she needs
under the sign
a pack of Merits,
as long as it takes
to suck one up
she smokes out
where neon and noise
How long it has been since with my axe
I staked out the familiar ground:
there the larch and tamarack bolts,
before me the marred stump, all the splinters
of my work in the cold earth
where I chopped wood for the cook stove.
I'd haft the axe in one hand, a bolt
in the other, measure by eye
the grains and fractures of the wood
then flip the bolt upright, long side up,
and step back even as the stillness
filled me, bring the axe up,
one hand sliding along the shaft
to give speed and grace. The blade came
easily across the years
that parted as the wood popped
under the blade, the anonymous trees
halved, split, kindled.
At night, coming
home from a party, the sky above
muffled with the next big snow,
the lights of my car would plunge down the dark
just for a second as I turned in
the drive, and graze across the bolt
I left on the stump where the axe was jammed.
Nothing shone but the clear, brief stars
of sap that eased from the unseamed rings
of green wood, small tears of amber.
They were gone as quick as the headlights swung
across the porch, and I'd kill the engine.
Inside fire slept, awaiting fuel.
Burning the Gas
This evening the Kingdom of Heaven has come to earth
On Route Eighty-Four just east of Portland, Oregon.
Bach's B-Minor Mass is playing on the stereo.
I drive into the city under a flame
of indescribable sunset, and all around me
the buildings start to blaze with constellations,
each light a jewel in the electric necklace
of comfort, warmth, and wonder.
I see the Kingdom of Heaven; I understand
how all of this could be the afterbirth
of the quick flash across the infinite sky,
exploding in the gas cloud out of nothing
before the congelation of the stars
to cool ferocity. The road careens
with headlights dancing past like asteroids
or atoms tracking their determined paths
along the film pan of the cyclotron.
Coming down Columbia, toward the Pacific,
I'm turning south, bound for California,
in the general direction of the equator,
the point of maximum spin. I sit enthroned
in plastic, encased in steel; I burn and breathe
petroleum. Everywhere I set free
molecular frenzy, loosen the unabated
joyous cellular dream division of cancer,
anarchic representations. I swerve and spin,
I see the magic gleaming of the city
spreading beyond the ramparts of the freeway
that bends its massive shoulder over the river,
in mad, expressionist drama, form and shadow,
light and power. Caroming and veering,
I dance my way through the Nintendo of heaven,
past light and noise, the steel and concrete barriers,
then shoot south on the highway into the dark.