BiographyJacqueline Johnson, is a multi-disciplined artist creating in both poetry, fiction writing and fiber arts. She is the author of A Woman's Season (Main Street Rag Press, 2015) and A Gathering of Mother Tongues (White Pine Press, 1998), winner of the Third Annual White Pine Press Poetry Award. Ms. Johnson has taught poetry at Pine Manor College, City University of New York, Poets House, Very Special Arts, Imani House, the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center and African Voices. Works in progress include: The Privilege of Memory and How to Stop a Hurricane, a collection of short stories. She is a graduate of New York University and the City University of New York. A native of Philadelphia, PA., she resides in Brooklyn, New York.
“Here is the poetry of proclamation and purification. Jacqueline Johnson claims not only language but also the ground beneath her feet. She gives birth to herself and restores her own memory. I believe this poet comes out of the stars. She reminds us why the sky is so beautiful and African American literature so rich. Johnson asks a very important question which must be answered: “Where do black women go for freedom?”
– E. Ethelbert Miller
(for Renisha McBride)
Forgive the grandmother who found you
barely conscious mumbling, stupid drunk
walking circles around your car, who thought she
could leave you and go back into her house.
Forgive the loss of mother wit; the
inability to grab you and bring you – daughter,
you babygirl on into the house.
Forgive her– lost in the disconnect of centuries,
to not call for an ambulance to get you help.
Forgive her return to the street to find
you gone out of sight. Too old to follow you,
to get someone, anyone to go look for you.
Forgive yourself for going out that night
of all nights to party and drink,
to hang out like any normal nineteen year old,
to know inebriation’s high; to believe you were
in control. Forgive the lost ones of you.
Forgive the night so dark your brownskin
self could not be found. Forgive your ori
so blindly drunk and in shock from a car crash;
forgive the incoherent selves wandering only
knowing to seek help. Crying for help.
Forgive this moment, day that you went
into that an all white woods and neighborhood.
Forgive yourself so lost, mother wit and father
wit gone. So lost, so shocked. So drunk you
ring that man’s door and all of your last
moments lost in the horror of shots
to your head, heart and soul.
Forgive the night you wanted to party so,
wanted to live so; forgive all the wrong turns,
the last four drinks you had. Forgive yourself
for thinking somehow you were in control,
had done this how many times before.
Forgive the cursed moment of speed,
of all the wrong turns, of walking and walking
on the longest walk that would never end
until you were nothing but soul.
Lost black woman, lost black girl
on a white man’s porch, in a place
so bad he never gave you a chance.
Came out shooting at your blackness,
black woman blackness seeking help.
Forgive this time, the moment that never
gave you a chance. Forgive all the wrong turns,
the speed, the drinks, the desire to party.
Forgive this time that never gave you a chance.
The Last Rain Queen
Your life was community property.
Your will a kind of “nkisi” meant to
serve other interests, never your own.
Your actions were to be dictated by elders.
Decreed to bring coolness, water, fertility
to a land, a people. Even if you had to fill
the horizon with your own tears.
To make rain — water the skies was your destiny.
You were the rain queen who ruled hot.
Getting an education for a job that did not require it.
Choosing your own lover and whom you would marry.
Upturning the patriarchy like a hurricane.
Going and coming as you pleased.
You brought the modern to their faces
and flaunted it; driving your lexis across
the countryside and running off to Europe.
No Isangoma or princess but Rain Queen
at twenty seven. Yet a woman still, wanting
a way of life that blazed and blossomed in you.
You refused to be their instrument.
What are the secrets of bringing rain, coolness
to an intemperate, always hot people?
Hungry for jobs, healthcare, technology.
How could you assuage needs generations long?
When you fell unconscious
a culture of priests cut with cruelty
so desiring a new rain queen —
kept you, a dying woman alive
six months while your fetus thrived.
You paid the highest human price.
Same ones that crowned you sent
you to join the ancestors prematurely.
Is it true the father snatched his daughter away
at birth before the priests could claim her?
The intra tribal infighting is still going on.
Rumor has it the next rain queen will be a man.
What Grace There Is
At the corner of William and
God knows — a turbaned man
stands in front of an SUV.
Maybe thirty years ago –
he still walked narrow path of a
Bombay country road.
Today he is my traffic guide.
Reddish hair cascades over his brow.
What to make of a raucous blue sky
asserting and pushing away
yet another grey November.
A tip of green between mounds of
wet leaves turning into a kind
of urban compost, fertilizer
for a time different from now.
I remember the gaze of the man
holding his body, talking on a cell phone
looking up as I passed by; we almost nod
at each other but don’t. That is the way it
is sometime. To live with change.
How to understand muscles that
inflame like parting flowers.
With gratitude I hold
this black man’s hand, life line
to lifeline. How many times
have I come to this small place to be saved.
Some mother’s son writing a lullaby
across my back with his finger tips.
I crave a home back in music,
my first true language. Muse.
Silence like a prayer beckons.
To face the worst of days
size up both enemies and lovers
and walk, run victorious, and
if not that, mysteriously onward.
Six southern sisters
hands upon each other’s waist;
youth’s echo in the world.
All I wanted to be
was a woman, a mother.
My arms a living cradle.
Teal green sea – true
mermaid water, tastes of salt and love.
This day starts with three men
on a boat fishing for fresh algae.
They hack away at spirals miles long.
How would we know back in the city
this algae may one day sit on a shelf
along with Himalayan sea salt selling
for some high prices, despite its
all too common origins.
How to begin again in the middle
of my journey? To harness courage
and a child’s eagerness standing
at the rim of a vast canyon.
To be willing not to implode,
instead explore that volcano inside.
How to cut away the vines of fear to reveal
a powerful daughter anchored in truth.
What if the moon and I are kissing cousins;
deep silvery friends
crackling, rising earth of that volcano?