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Sjohnna McCray


Sjohnna McCray was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on March 7, 1972. He studied at Ohio University and earned an MFA from the University of Virginia where he was a Hoyns Fellow. McCray also received an MA in English Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

His poetry collection, Rapture, was selected by Tracy K. Smith as the winner of the 2015 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets and will be published by Graywolf Press in 2016.

About Rapture, Smith writes, “These poems are so beautifully crafted, so courageous in their truth-telling, and so full of what I like to think of as lyrical wisdom—the visceral revelations that only music, gesture and image, working together, can impart—that not only did they stop me in my tracks as a judge, but they changed me as a person. Sjohnna McCray’s is an ecstatic and original voice, and he lends it to family, history, race and desire in ways that are healing and enlarging. Rapture announces a prodigious talent and a huge human heart.”

McCray’s poems have been published in numerous journals, including Chicago Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, and The Southern Review.

His honors include the AWP Intro Journal Award, Ohio University’s Emerson Poetry Prize, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. In addition to poetry, he has published essays on race, mental illness, and homosexuality in various journals.

McCray has taught in New York City, Phoenix, and Chicago. He currently lives in Savannah, Georgia, where he teaches in the English department at Savannah State University.

By This Poet


Agnostic Front

I believe the spine was stolen
            right out of my father’s back.            

Slumped at the kitchen table,
            he doesn’t move.  Beyond the window,

light pierces the clouds,
            inspires all matter to burst.

Father had a way with explosions.
            The noon sun’s breaking and entering

his head—smashing the temple
            and storming his heart.  The dark organ stops.            

Arteries close for grief.  Love leaves the barest
            bones of a thought: clouds evaporate. 

How the spit pools and falls to the tile.

Death Is a One Night Stand

A poor boy promised me a textbook view
           of the stars.  No snaking city lights
                       from a crown of downtown buildings,

Medusa-like in their paralyzing beauty.
           He drives the dark highway
                       and I hold him to his word, he turns    

onto a roughly paved hillside.
           Stiff black trunks and treetops wave
                       goodbye from the roadside.  Visions of policemen

in orange reflective vests
           pulled by search dogs for a scent,
                       a scrap of cloth, follows me into the field.

He places a hand on the dip of my back
           to guide me, like Hades, into his world.

Cinéma Vérité

Cinéma Vérité

            —Inspired by Rocco Morabito’s photo from the book Moments: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs

I.  The Arthouse

It has nothing to do with desire
although the act of pushing air
from one set of lungs to another
suggests an intimacy between people.

They weren’t supposed to meet;
they were always meant to be.
I watch each man on the street
the way dust swirls in the light—

the focus of gold endorphins.
The premise: two lovers in danger.

II.  The American Epic

If anything, it starts with lust.
She watches from the porch.
He does his best to scale the pole.
She sweeps her hair, auburn and damp,

over one shoulder.  She enjoys his arms,
they flex when the leather belt catches
and slaps the pole.  He wants to wink
from under his hat.  A print of tulips

covers her dress, petals and stems
in complete disarray.  There’s lipstick
on her teeth. Such details from so far away,
but it’s like that sometimes.

He sweats continents down his back,
dark shapes rounding the shoulders,
narrow pike along the spine.  She loves the image
so much, he’s disconnected: two biceps and an arched back.

Up among the elms, the tools from his belt
shine diamonds.  This charms her in some childish way.
His lean body out in the clouds.  The sky numb blue
like her husband’s eyes.  He’s near the top—

where the overhead lines are reported all dead.
He nods, she nods, a whiff of perfume floats up to him.
Soft, like her wide rear end.  She is wonderfully exotic
among Fords and Buicks.  He watches her sit on the stoop

and smooth her skirt before the livewire finds him,
changing the seconds between thinking I want and I don’t
and I want.  He dangles unconscious
to the rocking of her breasts.  As she runs,

the fury of the tulips explode into air.

III.  On the Cutting Room Floor

For once there are no calls, no letters, just sun driving neighbors onto porches.  1968: heat like a long whistle, dry
leaves scratching the curb, flip-flops sticking to swollen feet, the soft thump of plums falling to grass.  It was a
graveyard without bodies, each man arriving in the form of a letter.  But some days, no one dies.  I wish my father were
here, Sam’s father too.  It could happen—at any moment.  Mom screams when the worker’s legs collapse and he
hangs from a strap, bent at the knees like a purse emptied out of all its belongings.  His hardhat cracks on the
concrete.  Mom races down to the street.  Another man belts the pole in a frantic game of vertical leapfrog.  He knows
how a charge can blaze through a body—leave holes where the electricity burns out.
  He steadies his friend, cradles
the head from hanging, places his mouth over the listless mouth and breaths sour air into the lungs.  It’s the slowest
kiss that was never a kiss that I’ve ever seen.  Mom’s fingers brush over her lips, she blushes a necklace of welts. 
Pink flares along her cleavage and we both want this: to be kissed like that, to be jolted out and coaxed back. To stop
and live again.