Open Source (Poems from “Hammer & Consort”)

Horse History

My father said he was a horse:
strong, stupid, black.
He used to make a fist
like a colt’s muscled knee
when he spoke such verities.

He loved three
wood stallions
in a park he visited alone,
each painted a brocade of color –
haunches flowered red, green, gold –
painted eyes now chipped, dry pits.
When someone chopped them down,
he took a severed ear.

Ancient folklore says soon I’ll die
because I dream of horses –
one licks sugar from my hand
in a blue field, another runs through ash,
flooding my eyes with dust and I stumble.

I see my father now, his black, black skin –
how long have his hands been open?



Dreams are not puzzles but assistance. In this one, you are black like me. You hold me close as roots hold their dirt. Our bodies’ frequencies equal our minds’ inability to solve the where, when and how. Skin darkening just knowing me is not your first mystery. If you think of lovers as two trees growing separately, then blackening comes with rain – but for permanence, a fire.


A Fire in the Grass Where the House Should Be

There’s our wedding in the yard where the trees should be. There are doves on our table where the deed should be. There are cornfields in the cupboard where the children should be. There’s a pollux in my ear where the plot should be. Riddles instead of zeros, a rhododendron growing wild and tithing where the industry should be. A soul in the road where the car should be. Cantaloupe in hand where the keys should be. There’s rice thrown at the door where the threshold should be. Angels and funerals under the mattress where the future should be.


What Leonard Woolf Couldn’t Give Virginia

Virginia’s old fig tree seldom gave her fruit. Years after her death, Leonard plucked four for his new companion. I taste one with her: fig meat – an astonishment in the mouth. Sweet and fine grained, sticky – what ants must taste as they chew sugar off the peony. The heart has such a tiny mouth. It opens, opens, opens.



Called also an octoroon. As a girl, thought that was some bird. Purple feathered lyrebird with a parrot-hard beak. I became the bird in the backyard, behind mother’s gladioli where tiny frogs scattered over mud. Wings spouted from shoulders like a backwards beard. Some bearded iris. Toes hardened, curved into claws. Could I fly? Was I for show like a dumb grouse? Took years to uncover. Meantime, I molted. Colored myself in. As an octoroon, by nature nested far from home but longed for it always hence my terrible song. Getting older, adapt to the air and become like other birds, but odd. The tips of my feathers incendiary. When I finally fly toward home, I’ll set that old city on fire.


These poems are from “Hammer & Consort,” Roxane Beth Johnson’s current work in progress. “Horse History” was first published in Catamaran and “Honeymoon” appeared in American Literary Review .