Poem of the Week | March 21, 2016

This week we offer a new poem by Luke Johnson. Johnson is the author of the poetry collection After the Ark (NYQ Books, 2011). His poems have appeared in Best New Poets, New England Review, The Southern Review, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. His essays and criticism have appeared in Birmingham Poetry Review, Hollins Critic, the Marginalia Review of Books, and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he teaches writing at the University of Mary Washington.
Author’s note:

This poem comes from a manuscript exploring the lives of my grandparents, both of whom died before I was born. Everything I’ve learned about my grandmother leads me to believe she would have hated being told what to paint. Most of the best poems my students write are small revolutions against the assigned prompt, so I thought I’d allow Sally the same creative agency.


Sally Takes an Art Class


Capture a historical circumstance.
History seemed to Sally
a stupid place to search for beauty.


Paint Yalta or Appomattox.
Sally wanted to paint boots
at the end of a war: worn, folded


facing a wall like sisters
praying. Sally would not paint boots.
Sally liked to watch bearded men


shave their necks: soldiers
before battle scraping stubble
from their throats. Soldiers


like abandoned houses: sunken
and overgrown. All the rooms
are empty, all the walls are marked.


Fill the canvas with history.
Sally began to paint a blade
and a careful hand. A straight razor


& ebony handle. Toward the top
of the canvas the top of a neck
took shape, dots of blood


Sally placed before scraping
a dab of pink across where the chest
would be, & an open field


bloomed behind the body,
overlapping greens and browns
as a flushed bare torso


became foreground. Here,
unaware, Sally began to paint
her own breasts beneath the bloody neck.


Her nipples and her collarbone.
The historic world obscured by skin.
Where exactly did the last man die?


When did Sally become this leftover soldier?
Other students paint triumph.
A widow sketches Churchill.


Sally surveys her nude battlefield.
They hadn’t yet learned faces.
They hadn’t yet learned boots.


She left her blade clean and gleaming.