Tonight at a party we will say farewell
to a close friend’s breasts, top surgery for months
she’s saved for. Bundled close on a back step,
we wave a Bic lighter and burn her bra.
At first struggling to catch nylon aflame,
in awe we watch as all but the sheer black
underwire melts before forming a deep
quiet hole in the snow.

                                      Sometimes the page
too goes quiet, a body that we’ve stopped
speaking with, a chest out of which music
will come if she’s a drum flattened tight, if she’s
a canvas pulled across a frame, a field
where curves don’t show, exhalation without air.
Then this off-pitch soprano steals through.

 

*

 

Then this off-pitch soprano steals through
a crack that’s lit. A scarlet gap between
loose teeth. Interior trill. We’re rustling open.
Out of a prohibited body why
long for melody? Just a thrust of air,
a little space with which to make this thistling
sound, stretch of atmosphere to piss through when
you’re scared shitless. Little sister, the sky
is falling and I don’t mind, I don’t mind,
a line a girl, a prophet half my age,
told me to listen for one summer when
I was gutless, a big-mouthed carp that drank
down liters of algae, silt, fragile shale
while black-winged ospreys plummeted from above.

 

*

 

While black-winged ospreys plummeted from above,
we were born beneath. You know what I mean?
I’ll tell you what the girls who never love
us back taught me: The strain within will tune
the torqued pitch. In 1902 the last
castrato sang “Ave Maria.”
His voice—a bifurcated swell. So pure
a lady screams with ecstasy, Voce
Bianco! Breath control. Hold each note. Extend
the timbre. Pump the chest, that balloon room,
and lift pink lips, chin so soft and beardless,
a flutter, a flourish, a cry stretching beyond
its range, cruising through four octaves, a warbler,
a starling with supernatural restraint.

 

*

 

A starling with supernatural restraint,
a tender glissando on a scratched LP,
his flute could speak catbird and hermit thrush.
It was the year a war occurred or troops
were sent while homicide statistics rose;
I stopped teaching to walk out, my arms linked
to my students’ to show a mayor who didn’t
show. Seven hundred youth leaned on adults
who leaned back. We had lost another life
to a bullet in the Fillmore, Sunnyside,
the Tenderloin. To love without resource
or peace. When words were noise, a jazz cut was steel.
I listened for Dolphy’s pipes in the pitch dark:
A far cry. Epistrophy. A refusal.

 

*

 

A far cry. Epistrophy. A refusal.
A nightingale is recorded in a field
where finally we meet to touch and sleep.
A nightingale attests
as bombers buzz and whir
overhead en route to raid.
We meet under cover of brush and dust.
We meet to revise what we heard.
The year I can’t tell you. The future restages
the past. Palindrome we can’t resolve.
But the coded trill, a fever ascending,
a Markov chain, discrete equation,
generative pulse, sweet arrest,
bronchial junction, harmonic jam.

 

*

 

Bronchial junction, harmonic jam,
her disco dancing shatters laser light.
Her rock rap screamed through a plastic bullhorn
could save my life. Now trauma is a remix,
a beat played back, a circadian pulse you can’t shake,
inherent in the meter we might speak,
so with accompaniment I choose to heal
at a show where every body that I press against
lip syncs: I’ve got post-binary gender chores . . .
I’ve got to move. Oh, got to move. This box
is least insufferable when I can feel
your anger crystallize a few inches away,
see revolutions in your hips and fists.
I need a crown to have this dance interlude.

 

*

 

I need a crown to have this dance interlude
or more than one. Heating flapjacks you re-
read “Danse Russe,” where a man alone and naked
invents a ballet swinging his shirt around
his head. Today you’re a dandier nude
in argyle socks and not lonely as you
slide down the hall echoing girly tunes
She-bop doo wop . . . an original, domestic
butch. The landlord is looking through
the mini-blinds. Perched on a sycamore,
a yellow-throated warbler measures your
schisms, fault lines, your taciturn vibrato.
Tonight, as one crowd, we will bridge this choir.

More by Jenny Johnson

In the Dream

I was alone in a dyke bar we’d traversed before
or maybe it was in a way all our dives

merging together suddenly as one intergalactic composite,
one glitter-spritzed black hole,

one cue stick burnished down to a soft blue nub.
Picture an open cluster of stars

managing to forever stabilize in space
without a landlord scheming to shut the place down.

Anyways, I was searching for someone there
whom we hadn’t seen in years—in what

could have been Sisters, Babes, the Lex, the Pint,
the Palms, or the E Room? but the room

had no end and no ceiling.
Though I could see all of our friends or exes

with elbows up or fingers interlocked
on table tops zinging with boomerangs.

Maybe the tables were spinning, too. I can’t be sure.
But just as a trap that trips before

hammering a mouse is not humane
the dream changed—or the alarm

that I carry in my breast pocket in my waking life
was sounding. Because in the dream,

three people on bar stools, who were straight
or closeted? but more importantly angry

turned and the room dwindled
like a sweater full of moths eating holes

through wool. Or they were humans, sure,
but not here to love

with jawlines set to throw epithets like darts
that might stick or knick or flutter past

as erratically as they were fired. 
You could say their hostility was a swirl

nebulous as gas and dust,
diffuse as the stress

a body meticulously stores.
Like how when I was shoved in grade school

on the blacktop in my boy jeans
the teacher asked me if I had a strawberry

because the wound was fresh as jam, glistening
like pulp does after the skin of a fruit is

peeled back clean with a knife.
I was in the dream as open to the elements,

yet I fired back. And I didn’t care who eyed me
like warped metal to be pounded square.

I said: Do you realize where you are?

And with one finger I called our family forth
and out of the strobe lights, they came.
 

Spaces

I do not know how
she felt, but I keep

thinking of her—
screaming out to an empty street.

I had been asleep
when I heard a voice

screaming, Help!
and frantic, when I opened my door.

I remember her shoulders
in the faded towel I found   

before she put on my blue sweats
and white T-shirt. Call 911

please, she said.
When the officer arrived

I said, I found her there after the—
But she said,

No, that wasn’t what
happened.

What must be valued
I’m learning,

in clarity and in error,
are spaces

where
feelings are held.

Here—in a poem?
And elsewhere

Summoning the Body That Is Mine When I Shut My Eyes

Come second heartbeat sounding in the breast
Come prismatic light dissembling
Come familiar spirit  Come bare-chested in the weeds
Come private imposter  Come hidden ballast
Come sudden departures  Come stress without shape
Because belief is odd  Come swaggering answer
Come invisible ink  Come beatific scrawl
Come as squirrels are climbing backwards
Come as dogwood blossoms come apart
Come strumming an unspeakable power ballad
Through a torrent of rain with cheeks flushed scarlet
Come down the rusty metal slide
Come belted kingfisher flapping
Come lavender asters wheeling
Come loose, a sapling lengthening
Come honeysuckle  Come glistening