Poems by Jacqueline Johnson

Mother Tongues III* I.

Just think, all those tongues

all those people,

caught in the quickening wind.

Hindu speak, Arawak cry, African

bluesong, Hopi wail.

Can you see the spirits caught in

Babel's confused tower?

Last night I dreamed it was standing upright.

There is a baby sitting on my knee,

I am in the center of a village.

I own its past and its future. Sometimes I

paint the generations with my hands.


I am in search of my

mother tongue,

I am in search of

the mother tongue.

American can't hold me,

has always been my second language.

I am in search, I seek my mother tongue.

More than the sounding of women

it is an understanding,

a knowing about cosmos,

this universe of all our bodies - earth.

Just last night I was in

search of the mother tongue,

found myself in the bush

of Chibok, listening to

wailing mother spirits, knowing

in the African cosmos, 276 girls,

500 girls, 1,000 girls like me,

like you just disappeared.


Last night, I dreamed all

the leaning faiths, all

the leaning truths everywhere

were standing upright.

I can see it in the smoke of the Ukraine, of Sarajevo,

how the whole city weeps. What happened

when they pulled the wall down?

What happened when they undid the boundaries?

This new Europe bleeds like in the old days.


I wonder if Lloyd McNeil remembers when

music was waiting to happen in him,

waiting for him to discover, metaphor,

paint and half notes.

His mind a fertile rooster flying free.

Ten years ago, Walcott said,

"surrender," and I did. And from that

moment, that forever the sound of

poetry has been calling ever since.


Mind of my mind,

practicing guerilla warfare.

Mind of my mind,

growing flowers in heart of the Stuy.

Where does a woman go for solitude?

Can't find Sarton's garden anywhere.

Picking glass, cigarette butts, dog doo, condoms,

and candy wrappers from the earth - a woman too.

All she wants is our respect.

All we want is our respect.


Just this morning, I remembered my

awakeness, saw the possibilities of

flowers that couldn't find the sun.

Heard the babble in my neighborhood go

from confusion to clarity. Saw this artist

who refused government aid. Refused

to be a state artist. Found a way,

made a way to keep wild poppies of her art alive.

She knows freedom does not require

an application, just pursuit.


Last night I dreamed

all those made to lean generations,

all the leaning flags,

leaning people of Africa,

were standing upright.

--*from a "Gathering of Mother Tongues".



In waters run obsidian

from loss and loneliness,

reflections closer than I thought

surprise me.

“I want to live,” she says

pushing aside my lame rejections.

Her agile spirit reveals

what I deny;

she who knits back skin

torn by a scalpel’s steel.

Never weary of moon cycles,

she returns faithfully

wearing her many skirts.

Wise woman, yaya

keeper of delicateness

black black, so blue are her ways

one can barely glimpse her.

This Indigo,

I stain myself

with the wonder of her.

Jacqueline Johnson

--*from "A Woman's Season".