The Miracle

- 1888-1958

Though I was dwelling in a prison house, 
My soul was wandering by the carefree stream
Through fields of green with gold eyed daisies strewn, 
And daffodils and sunflower cavaliers. 
And near me played a little browneyed child, 
A winsome creature God alone conceived, 
“Oh, little friend,” I begged. “Give me a flower
That I might bear it to my lonely cell.” 
He plucked a dandelion, an ugly bloom, 
But tenderly he placed it in my hand, 
And in his eyes I saw the sign of love. 
‘Twas then the dandelion became a rose. 

More by Fenton Johnson

The Banjo Player

There is music in me, the music of a peasant people.
I wander through the levee, picking my banjo and singing my songs of the cabin and the field. At
   the Last Chance Saloon I am as welcome as the violets in March; there is always food and
   drink for me there, and the dimes of those who love honest music. Behind the railroad tracks
   the little children clap their hands and love me as they love Kris Kringle.
But I fear that I am a failure. Last night a woman called me a troubadour. What is a troubadour?

In the Evening

                    I
In the evening, love returns,
   Like a wand’rer ’cross the sea;
In the evening, love returns
   With a violet for me;
In the evening, life’s a song,
   And the fields are full of green;
All the stars are golden crowns,
   And the eye of God is keen.

                   II
In the evening, sorrow dies
   With the setting of the sun;
In the evening, joy begins,
   When the course of mirth is done;
In the evening, kisses sweet
   Droop upon the passion vine;
In the evening comes your voice:
   “I am yours, and you are mine.”

The Minister

          I mastered pastoral theology, the Greek of the Apostles, and all the difficult subjects in a minister’s curriculum.
          I was as learned as any in this country when the Bishop ordained me.
          And I went to preside over Mount Moriah, largest flock in the Conference.
          I preached the Word as I felt it, I visited the sick and dying and comforted the afflicted in spirit.
          I loved my work because I loved my God.
          But I lost my charge to Sam Jenkins, who has not been to school four years in his life.
          I lost my charge because I could not make my congregation shout.   
          And my dollar money was small, very small.
          Sam Jenkins can tear a Bible to tatters and his congregation destroys the pews with their shouting and stamping.
          Sam Jenkins leads in the gift of raising dollar money.
          Such is religion.

Related Poems

Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison

If instead of being hanged by the neck
    you’re thrown inside
    for not giving up hope
in the world, your country, and people,
    if you do ten or fifteen years
    apart from the time you have left,
you won’t say,
        “Better I had swung from the end of a rope
                        like a flag”—
you’ll put your foot down and live.
It may not be a pleasure exactly,
but it’s your solemn duty
    to live one more day
            to spite the enemy.
Part of you may live alone inside,
        like a stone at the bottom of a well.
But the other part
    must be so caught up
    in the flurry of the world
             that you shiver there inside
     when outside, at forty days’ distance, a leaf moves.
To wait for letters inside,
to sing sad songs,
or to lie awake all night staring at the ceiling
                              is sweet but dangerous.
Look at your face from shave to shave,
forget your age,
watch out for lice
                       and for spring nights,
       and always remember
              to eat every last piece of bread—
also, don’t forget to laugh heartily.
And who knows,
the woman you love may stop loving you.
Don’t say it’s no big thing:
it’s like the snapping of a green branch
                                             to the man inside.
To think of roses and gardens inside is bad,
to think of seas and mountains is good.
Read and write without rest,
and I also advise weaving
and making mirrors.
I mean, it’s not that you can’t pass
        ten or fifteen years inside
                                       and more—
               you can,
               as long as the jewel
               on the left side of your chest doesn’t lose its luster!

To Prisoners

I call for you cultivation of strength in the dark.
Dark gardening
in the vertigo cold.
in the hot paralysis.
Under the wolves and coyotes of particular silences.
Where it is dry.
Where it is dry.
I call for you
cultivation of victory Over
long blows that you want to give and blows you are going to get.

Over
what wants to crumble you down, to sicken
you. I call for you
cultivation of strength to heal and enhance
in the non-cheering dark,
in the many many mornings-after;
in the chalk and choke.

Legacy

            after George Jackson

Because something else must belong to him,
More than these chains, these cuffs, these cells—
Something more than Hard Rock’s hurt,
More than remembrances of where men
Go mad with craving—corpuscle, epidermis,
Flesh, men buried in the whale of it, all of it,
Because the so many of us mute ourselves,
Silent before the box, fascinated by the drama
Of confined bodies on prime-time television,
These prisons sanitized for entertainment &;
These indeterminate sentences hidden, because
We all lack this panther’s rage, the gift
Of Soledad &; geographies adorned with state numbers
&; names of the dead &; dying etched on skin,
This suffering, wild loss, under mass cuffs,
Those buried hours must be about more
Than adding to this surfeit of pain as history
As bars that once held him embrace us.