Two Poems from Donna Johnson’s “Selvage”

Award-winning poet Donna Johnson was an assistant editor at our Winning Writers online publishing business from 2009-2011. I’m glad that the demands of updating our contest database didn’t keep her from completing her remarkable first poetry collection, Selvage, now out from Carnegie Mellon University Press. I had the privilege of reading it in manuscript and providing the following blurb:

Selvage, a precise yet uncommon word, refers to the self-finished edge that keeps fabric from fraying. Like that cloth, the girl-turned-woman we follow through these electrifying poems must weave strong edges for herself to keep from being pulled apart by others’ desires. She flirts dangerously with alternative selves–the prostituted woman, the fierce nun–to understand her body’s potential as it chafes against the proprieties of Southern white girlhood. Selvage sounds like salvage, too, the hardscrabble work of children seeking nourishment and mementos from the wreck of their past. Every poem digs up treasures of insight, words pungent as the air outside the tannery, ineradicable artifacts like the bullet in a slave woman’s unearthed spine–not always comfortable to contemplate, but satisfying as only the truth can be.

Donna has kindly given permission to reprint two sample poems, below.

(for Della)

Your mother had notions. Wouldn’t buy Ivory soap–
not because she saw the irony, that whiteness
equals purity, not because it reminded her
of all the carved tusks looted from Abidjan ruins
curled around the wrists of Belle Meade denizens–
she thought it smelled common. Cornrows
and Kente cloth were out of the question.

She clung to her book of proper, as if
it could keep one from harm: the hands of boys
inching down your pants, police slowing,
tinted windows rolling down, all because you crossed
the highway that divided the two halves of town.

She taught you to look ahead (like you don’t see nothin)
balancing flute case across handlebars,
approaching the house of the first clarinet,
with its lawn boy positioned at the gate,
coat and exaggerated grin, freshly painted red.


Eve Gets a Makeover

I don’t like to say anybody’s hopeless. But, that yellow Dotted Swiss you just bought–you know, the one with the full dirndl skirt and gathered waist–makes you look wider than you are tall. Enough material in it to patch the Hindenburg. Don’t fret, though hon. You got your charms. Jes gotta make use of em before they’re gone: a little contour cheek powder, a shade darker than your natural, some highlights. What you waitin for? Plenty women gettin all their stuff done. Who’s gonna throw stones? Your kids are clean, their hair is combed. Your make cakes from scratch; once a week you bring that broccoli casserole to the nursin home. I know what they told you. Jesus first, others second, yourself last spells J-O-Y. But joy ain’t beauty. And I don’t see you displayin much of the former, anyhow, worryin about your husband workin late, maybe findin someone younger. Anyway, the King James did get one thing right: all flesh is grass. That’s why you best be ruthless with it. I can help you there. I know flesh. And I know ruthless.

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