Richey | Johnson

Richey | Johnson
December 27, 2023 Richey Frances

Frances Richey | Marilyn A. Johnson

The Madonna of the Yarnwinder
Leonardo da Vinci


It surprises me, how alone they are
on the rocks
in that vast landscape,
far from their cohorts—
Lost—her basket,
the straw, his star—
The child twists himself
away from his mother,
caresses the cross-
bars of the niddy-noddy,
free, for the moment, of wraps and knots,
any notion of what it’s for—
Like the boy who finds
his father’s gun in a drawer,
fondles the frame as he peers
down the dark barrel.

—Frances Richey


Richey on Johnson
Marilyn A. Johnson (the middle initial so she isn’t confused with the other Marilyn Johnsons) is the author of three popular non-fiction books and wrote for years for magazines like Esquire and Life, but I met her last year through the Hudson Valley Writers Center as she was returning to her original love, poetry. The first time I read one of Marilyn’s poems, I looked for her books and found only prose. And wonderful prose, at that!
I’ve read much of her new work as she puts together her first collection and share here a poem she wrote recently about her brother, David, who died when he was eight.
This poem alludes to the mystery of entrainment that takes place between some lovers, some parents and their children, or in this case, between siblings—that ability to intuit a sense of what has happened to the loved one in real time from far away. The sister in the poem dreads finding her brother, as she already has a sense of his fate.
How many ways can you look at a life-defining absence, carry it far into adulthood unspoken, finally to turn it over like a prism in your hand: as he was, as he might have been if she could have saved him, the glass over the face of his watch un-shattered in that imagined future. In answer to the aunt in the poem: There is no getting over it.
The way the poem lays out, ragged and vulnerable on the page, matches the sister’s reckoning with these memories. Rich with music, with that irresistible pull to imagine the lost one given a reprieve, the poem tells us, “This is what the mind does.” The phantom brother calls to her and she listens, allowing the reader, too, to hear him, to feel “his absence the fact/we can’t help bumping into” as the “fallow” orchard at the beginning of the poem turns “wild.”



we wait in an arc with flashlights
tremble in the dark

we walk the fields
fan out over the hills to the next farm
down the slope to the fallow orchard
down the dirt driveway to the road
David     David     we call
the dogs roam too
tense with the mission
barks and whines and
the sounds of our boots
through half-frozen weeds
this is what the mind does
I drop my flashlight
the moon useless tonight
reflecting nothing
a bed of embers
in the wire basket where
the family burns trash
the searchers like fireflies
in the distance

there’s a madness to this
I don’t want to find him—
sick with suspense
the red embers
the lights
twitching on the hills

I feel a brush against my coat
I can’t see what isn’t there
my coat hem lifts
a tug—
what circles me
moves air
an exhale
could be wind

whatever it is
presses me
this insistence

every baby wears a name too big—
his     the mighty David
like our father
like the king of the tribes of Israel
many wives     concubines     descendants

he will father no one
the air stirs
the tug on my sleeve
unmistakable this time
a whisper
chase me
all right I’ll play
I’ll run after you
past the glowing burn cage
I’ll chase the idea of a boy
through a flicker of sparks
along the fence-line
one more race
before the last who knew you
are gone
get over it
my aunt says
her professional opinion—
all of us
need to move on
an emergency room nurse
she scales death
and I get it
one small death
happened long ago

I agree     get over it     and yet
from way up the driveway
they heard his body hit

a sound I heard too
though I was nowhere near

and then he was
projection     conjecture

his absence the fact
we can’t help bumping into
what if he had a reprieve
another lifetime
another eight years

auburn hair in his eyes
muscled     an athlete
pockets bulging
with all we’d given him—
keys     folding money
the watch he got
the day of his first communion

say he still has that watch
its face un-shattered
say it tells us
he has time
I’d sit on the split-rail fence
the sketch of a fence
as he tosses a ball to the sky
and swings the bat out
one-handed pepper
into the fields

endless bucket of baseballs
a defiant   crack     
over and over
imaginary birds
in the wild orchard
—Marilyn A. Johnson




Marilyn A. Johnson’s poetry was published most recently in Salamander, Inkwell, On the Seawall, and North American Review. She has been the recipient of a fellowship from Yaddo and a contributor to Field and other literary magazines.
Johnson is the author of three non-fiction books, including The Dead Beat, a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discovery Prize. She has been a Staff Writer for Life, an Associate Literary Editor of Esquire, and a Senior Editor of Outside.
She is currently an Associate Editor of Hole In The Head Review, the quarterly literary magazine founded by other former students of Charles Simic. She is working on her first collection.
After a nomadic early life, she made a home in New York’s Hudson Valley with her family.

Frances Richey is the author of three poetry collections: The Warrior (Viking Penguin 2008), The Burning Point (White Pine Press 2004), and the chapbook, Voices of the Guard, a collaboration with the Oregon National Guard and Clackamas Community College, published by the college in 2010. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, Gulf Coast, Salamander, Blackbird, and The Cortland Review, among others. She was a winner of Nicholas Kristof’s Iraq War Poetry Contest, and her poem appeared in his column, entitled “The Poets of War,” in June, 2007. She was the Barbara and Andrew Senchak Fellow at MacDowell for 2015-2016, a Finalist for the National Poetry Series in 2019, and a Finalist for the 2020 Pablo Neruda Prize. Her poems have been featured on NPR, PBS NewsHour and Verse Daily. She teaches an on-going poetry writing class at Himan Brown Senior Program at the 92NY in NYC where she is Poet-in-Residence.