Two Poems by Devin Johnston

by Devin Johnston

illustrator Daniel Egnéus

Issue X


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The Southern

An oval fob of brass,
key still attached,
surfaced in a shop on Cherokee
and now rests atop my desk
beside a small obsidian axe.
Absently, I rub my thumb
across the fob and feel
Southern Hotel, Room 306.
The elegant lobby survives
in a few steel engravings:
palms and spindleback chairs,
fruit in thick cut glass,
men loafing in spats.
One of them slips next door
for a quick nip
and winds up slugging down
half a dozen oysters the size of eggs,
rummaging through the shells.
Amidst the bright din
of cutlery and chatter,
the whiskey—a second, then a third—
encourages equilibrium,
then a calm indifference.
The evening sun goes down,
drawing river smells
through shadows of the Sixth Ward
blushing the hotel’s stone façade,
enflaming its westward-facing rooms.
Behind the front desk, a plaque
commemorates Chief Pontiac,
leader of the Ottawa
and great friend to Louisiana,
buried in a blue coat
beyond the cemetery gates,
no one knows quite where.

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Strangers

On an overbooked flight from Houston,
I find my seat beside a woman
in black shades, with the hard-bitten look
that sometimes follows addiction,
nails chewed down to the quick,
talking too loudly into her phone:
Yeah, I got my dad a new amp.
Rocking must run in the family!
As we level off in the tenuous dusk,
she orders a Red Bull and Skyy,
scarfing down her portion of pretzels,
shifting abruptly from side to side
to cross and re-cross her legs,
swiping through files on her phone.
Meanwhile, I skim an Audubon guide
and pause at the boat-tailed grackle
with its iridescence, yellow eye,
and long, harsh trilling song.
You like that book?, she interrupts.
I got some crazy shit to show you.
Here, a silky fantail
from the State Fair of Texas.
Have you ever seen a mule pull?
This team’s dragging five tons.
Oh, that’s me, getting an award.
I’m a doctor, you believe that shit?
In the snapshot, she wears a white lab coat
with a ribbon pinned to her lapel,
her arm around a soldier’s waist
in what looks to be a shopping mall.

I love birds! So check it out:
I raised fuckin’ racing pigeons
with my dad, a top geneticist
at Baylor—total brainiac.
We banded squabs, flew them in batches,
drove them out for training tosses.
This one, with a Belgian pedigree,
came first in the Texas Showdown.
Fuckin’ a, I loved those birds.

On and on, an improbable mix
of tough talk and expertise
that finds no resolution.
But then, consider of my own account,
withheld: an invitation
to read my poetry aloud,
tequila and a fine lechón,
a morning free to watch a pair
of caracaras take apart
the carcass of a wild hog
along the Chocolate Bayou.
What would such scraps mean to her?

Even in our final descent
she pushes past my doubt
and reticence, to say,
I started as a dancer,
and now I’m a goddamn doc.
Looking back, it all makes sense!
—the incidents of a life
fanning out in a strange display.

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