– for Malakai

If you come to where
the thorny pears grow
along the one-way road

and crouch beneath
the sticky shade
that draws out

spiders and wasps
and children playing
chase in the dying light,

you’ll witness, if lucky,
the buck my father
failed to shoot

sip from fading streams,
and freeze when salt
winds finger oaks

that pearl loose supple
flowers. Soon the winds
will die

and the blossoms settle
and the leaves
will shimmer liquid bruise,

while geese grow wild
with drunken gossip
then capsize in the dark.


As a boy I placed
my palm on the belly
of a drowned mare

and marveled
as meat wasps
entered its eyes

to thrum with frenzied
feast. I thought of my
mother shoeless, shifting

the reeds,
the rasp of her call
as she chased a child

who moved through
darkling mirrors.


I held my brother’s
name in my throat
and hid at night

when woken by birds
milling around the attic.
My mother liked

to tell me they were
angels swapping
nightly news,

their heavy wings
of light,
and if I craned my head

and listened real closely,
I could hear them swivel
sugar in tea and snort

when falling asleep.


In the steady dark
the crickets crack
the quiet with their

calloused acoustics
and you are thinking
now of loss. How

the body is a busy
depot where people
stop to share a secret

or write a letter
or weep for a lover
who’s no longer near

to kiss their eyelids
closed. Is the sting
in your stomach

an unbearable storm,
have your legs
gone weak with regret?

Listen: If you climb
the Eucalyptus
by the ghost house

and sit on the high branch
studying robins,
you’ll watch the mother

come at dusk to feed
her babies and float
above their mouths.

They will cock
their heads and cry
until the mother stops

to fall asleep,
one eye guarding the nest.
Your hands will itch

to squeeze my son snap
their necks and be
done with it.

But I’m warning you

not to. You will play
that image again and again
and your hands

will fill with want
again and again and
for forty years

you’ll feel her hover,
asking for the dead.





Luke Johnson lives on the California coast with his wife and three kids. His poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, Florida Review, Frontier, and Thrush, among other publications. His manuscript in progress was recently named a finalist for the Jake Adam York Prize with Milkweed Editions, The Levis Prize through Four Way Press, and The Vassar Miller Award. It is forthcoming in fall of 2023 from Texas Review Press.

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