Excerpts from Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems

The accompanying excerpts are taken from Johnson’s book of verse, "Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems". Reference is hereby made to the Acknowledgements page in the book for information related to previous publications of poems included in the volume. The copyright provisions for Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems, including the following excerpts, are applicable:
Copyright © 2017 by J. Chester Johnson

Of distractions he was, like most, fully versed;
and yet, he still knew a carefully arranged touch
is but a transmutation of a desire
to reach for rebirth; and
what errors he shall commit
make him more dependent on the search.
– from “Exile”

It has been told, as a message, how loss is only
A kind of prophecy, how the meaning of vatic signs
From lower events is reducible to earth’s
Incomplete form; for there’s a mad style to
It all: irony can just as well correct
The incorrigible as it can and will stifle
The powerful cries of moral creatures.
– from “January 12th, 1967”

Do not grieve for me, Ruby Sales, for
Sweet Jesus has borne my wounds home – and
The blood of my body, the blood of
Medgar, Martin, the Philadelphia three,
And all the rest have soaked the soil
And the soul and saved the South and me.
– from “Jonathan Daniels: Meditations On Civil Rights Activists”

                              It is time for others,
Who sing and reach across lines with open hearts
And the love for one nation, one people, one springtime.
Maybe, the heart has heard the mind.
Maybe, I am the mind that told them so.
– from “W.E.B. Du Bois: Meditations On Civil Rights Activists”

The keys to change never altered our chance
To function as father and son; coarse memories hardly lurched as
We heard soft tolerance, a modus operandi continuously waiting
In unity to provide delicious notes and effects.
– from “Pater, Magnificus: Story of Pug”

The motive of home descends
upon our world and commands
like a famed specter declaring
its pagan magic and occult possession;
we then learn calls from another side
stop a private attitude of lovers
in their sea of voices remembered,
rejected and returned.
– from “Home”

Martin, you wouldn’t let the dead stay dead;
for they had a purpose: to show an array
of reasons the past should pass away.
And yet, so, we will learn once again:
whoever kills the past it must also kill.
– from “Martin”

Excerpts from St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems

The accompanying poems are taken from Johnson’s book of verse, "St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems." Reference is hereby made to the Acknowledgements page in the book for information related to previous publications of poems included in the volume. The copyright provisions for St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems, including the following poems, are applicable:
Copyright © 2006 by J. Chester Johnson
Second printing 2010

1. St. Paul's Chapel(back to the top)

It stood.  Not a window broken.
Not a stone dislodged.
It stood
when nothing else did.
It stood
when terrorists brought September down.
It stood among myths. It stood among ruins.

To stand was its purpose, long lines prove that.
It stands, and around it now, a shrine
of letters, poems, acrostics,
litter of the heart.
It is the standing people want:
To grieve, serve and tend
celebrate the lasting stone of St. Paul's Chapel.

And deep into its thick breath,
the largest banner fittingly from Oklahoma
climbs heavenward
with hands as stars, hands as stripes, hands as a flag;
and a rescuer reaches for a stuffed toy
to collect a touch; and
George Washington's pew doesn’t go unused.
Charity fills a hole or two.

It stood
in place of other sorts.
It stood
when nothing else could.
The great had fallen,
as the brute hardware came down.
It stood.

2. Clouds(back to the top)

The clouds were poised, and the hair was combed;
the outfit chosen, the subject declared:
Truth would be pursued.
Against the walls of nomenclature
and in the tangled roots of words,
we were ready,
Tongue-tied on incantations we murmured
but couldn’t recite.
There were clouds heavy to rive,
lightning at the cusp,
claps so bearable whenever retrieved.
And while we waited for a clarion high,
The impervious clouds simply floated by.

3. It Happened On East Shelton Street(back to the top)

The Smythes,
Oscar and Leah
(old brands, to be sure),
fiftyish and folkish,
freeish in a local sort of way,
twined of thoughts, body, food,
by vernacular, too. . .

No, they’re not Winnie and Clemmy,
Nor Cleopatra and Caesar,
No Liz and Richard,
certainly not Romeo and Juliet. . .

As each union
relies on its own speciality. . .
as the Smythes bear something
vitreous, something silted, colloquial, a more
suffusing favor. . .

This mid-life, yes,
stuff of which instructive stories,
less bristled morals are molded,
has taken the grip back from early excess,
added a mark of effect,
an equal amount of factual knowledge and easy feast,
and, of course, wistfully learned,
that later serving of context,
and it’s all very supple,
forgiving, and, at times, most entire. . .

4. Back In The Garden(back to the top)

The serpent has requested of the apple tree:
“Except for indifferent pride and such jazz,
That aside, what will be the common sin of all?”
Its branches astir, the apple tree replied:
“Doubtless (as nothing comes close that I foresee) –
Idolatry, idolatry, idolatry.
It’ll be everywhere, a crude potpourri:
Work for some, shrine of power for others,
Food, drugs, incandescent sex, fast wine,
Sports and money, enough white marble;
An endless number of things and stuff
Without which (the mystique of it) the children of God
Will think they can not live for a week.”
The serpent, replete with smiles, went his own way;
For the game was set and the fix complete.

5. Elegy To A Distant Son(back to the top)


You will not know by any telling, Son,
The thoughts that I have softly shared with you.
At once, you weren’t there (from divorce they run!) –

And separate by place and unlike view,
We cracked apart as though we were the rot.
Myself for us was said to be untrue.

You have your toys, mild talcums, and low spot
Now at the ductile age of twenty-four,
And I have mine, now long in tooth and squat;

We share a little only, nothing more –
While even on our way to fluent ground.
What’s done, these coupled traits we’re to ignore.

You trekked into another side around,
Another side of scrubs and pits unbound.


We should forage by two to bear us best,
But you have gods among brambles and trees,
The gods you chose without my watchful test

Around the deeper bush, as I, by degrees,
Have learned to practice distance to survive.
We quicken sports news, spun as similes,

With pitchers, catchers, scores (as points alive
And hugs), for father-son things were denied
From which a verbal coven could derive.

And now from here? Just simply put aside,
For you’ll do yours, and I will go to mine.
Yet deep within the sleep of foster-tide,

And maybe on a day of law or sign,
You will discover something we define.


And maybe at the birth of any child
Or moments moiling through the smoke of loss,
Or left behind, a pair of fools, self-styled,

Will shed from us this tumid albatross
Before, again, it madly perseveres.
(What makes our mutual blood a double cross?)

And if the promise, “Welcome back”, appears,
We’d squinch badly for lines so meant to save –
A flutter to both tongue and vow adheres

To doubt reprised and restive words, but brave.
A safe distance opens a safe landscape.
While musing on the slights that we forgave,

I stalk your many secrets I’d reshape,
And you’re just moving faster to escape.

6. Night Call(back to the top)

I, for one, need no safe exit
out of the wild universe of the midnight café;
coffee not much instantly,
rain stuck to shoulders of the storm.

I, for one, know my steps away
warn of solitude, as words hushed
are now repeated in mute resonance;
beer mist, lascivious smoke, loss,

Night calls
gather the loose and dangerous strays
the moral day rejects, so it is said,
but I, for one,
belong to the night, for it and I
refuse the traces and lies of daylight,
and we are one.

7. The School On Rue Des Rosiers(back to the top)

Paris, France

(165 enfants juifs de cette
ecole deportes en Allemagne
durant la seconde guerre mondiale
furent extermines dans les
camps nazis.) N’oubliez Pas.

To lament is to warn. . .
No slaughterhouse
of innocence can be explained so.
A cosmic loss
can only be reached
by a cosmic soul. . .

what merciful eye
forgot to look their way?

Sums of laughter
are disguised by honor
and drama tonight;
only a plaque
remains to remind me
children once resided
where echoes now control. . .

what merciful eye
forgot to look their way?

How can crimes and insanity
be so near so many
among balance and delight?
I know and do not know,
for fear of the answer
keeps me timid;
so be it, monuments and plaques
to commemorate our failures,
not our heroes. . .

This morning,
I hear a baby cry
above Rue des Rosiers,
suggesting once again
I yet turn away
the fortunes and recourses
of loss and the designs
and progress of pain. . .

what merciful eye
forgot to look their way?

The morning light now
rises above
the school on Rue des Rosiers,
and soon the chatter
of children will again rule a courtyard.
Music will be heard,
and a boy will
not notice one girl
predicts and surveys
her own absence. . .

To lament is to warn. . .
Let those who play here now
know (without despair or numbness)
that great accidents befall great people,
great evil befalls great good,
and the greatest fall
always dances
near the greatest dancer.

8. Stevens’ Season(back to the top)

They say Wallace Stevens
composed verse
as he counted his way to work;
Steps levitating to a proud ear
rhythmic pronunciations.
Clarity of verse combined
with diversions of the street
(And much was lost or much was gained),
as momentary lapses of metaphor
Brought the business and busyness
of bustle and brattle
Too close,
Hid a sonnet for a secret season.

9. Another Sultry Moment(back to the top)

Flesh is the thing.

Sere, rough-hewn leather says
We’ve gotten old and baroque.
Fruit-flavored and spot-free, suppleness
Tells a much different story.

We knew the latter once
When sap rose daily, nightly, continually,
Not deciduously – no seasonal
To seasonal preservation,
No waiting upon a lambent pulse.
Flesh was the thing.

Now sap clogs
On its way, slow to surface
On the parch-high of thinner skin;
And, yet, we’ve learned the tricks
Of trading guile for unction
And grit for sauce.
Wizened in a grasp of sentient claims,

Flesh is still the thing.

10. Fear Of Flying(back to the top)

We’re downtown on September 11th,
Minding our business, tending fate.
There’s one moment,
Early in advance of the rest,
When birds don’t sing being in flight,
When they wend alongside many a parched cornice;
No, they never sing without a grip.
(And we want to be with God.)

Around the corner, across from St. Paul’s Chapel,
People take on air –
Some leap, while most degrade into vapor
In one giant cough, dropping headlong
Through flames or debris, never landing.
(God, save them and us.)

. . .Wait, we’d aerate effect to lighten the torque;
Balloons, yes, balloons
And footballs, kites, all
Fly so high a loose languor
As if ordained aloft in undiminishable space, retiring
Into well-stretched and elevated hands.
(God meant for rare things to happen,
But not for a man with a butcher knife
To cut an airborne tether.)

By hell’s unchoked retch,
A gas-blackened plume heatedly swells
A swatch of cellophane heavenward, higher still.
How does it happen some things
Rise air-tucked without ties,
Staves, or other fast catch-mes? Atop
An attenuating breath,
The swath should land but when?

(“. . .Wisdom comes once
We’ve taken place.”)

So there.
Flying is good for business, we’re told,
But is it good for us?