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Brandon D. Johnson

Brandon Johnson
Brandon D. Johnson, originally from Gary, Indiana has lived in the Washington, DC. area for the past 20 years. He is a founding member of the Modern Urban Griots, a poetry and performance collective in the District of Columbia. He's performed at It's Your Mug, New York's Nuyorican Poet's Cafe, and the Whitney Museum, the Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Series, and the Grace Church Poetry Series. He received Honorable Mention and Third Place in poetry in the DC Commission on the Arts' Larry Neal Writers' Competition in 1996 and '97. During the summers of '97 and '98, he participated in the Cave Canem Workshop/Retreat, a program for African American Poets founded by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte. Recently, Brandon was awarded a Fellowship Grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. He is author of the collection Man Burns Ant and co-author of The Black Rooster Social Inn: This is the Place.

The poems included here are from his new book Strangers which is available from him.


Based on a painting by Archibald Motley

Reggieís finger points at crooked lines on a piece of dirty paper.
spent a week casin Millerís Hardware like a fox hittin a henhouse.
Chevis sit back, dumb as a bag of hammers, rememberin
times with Black Jackís boys chasin Villa round
Mexico with a finger faster than his head. he pretends
to know this caperís takeíll make up for Peoria
when that smartass teller flipped a switch.

Black and Shug scan the room for folks payin
too much attention, or conspicuously unconcerned.
Mudflap burns a Cuban, studyin a newspaper like a paintin
eyes perusin pages like it was that picture above his head
like heíd see Jack Johnson knock Gentleman Jim out again.
smoke snakes under bowler brims, searchin the felt for escape.

Charnita weaves through the bar slow collectin
eyes followin her hips like the ball in a movie singalong.
a feathered stole chokes the chill from her throat.
she giveíem thick lips and long legs curvin like a chair leg
her layin down red heels like blood puddles.
her blue coat canít hide the bundle of butt she took
small pains to conceal, or reveal to the right man

but there ainít none, cause she the kind of woman crooks avoid
like sticky money, bad getaway cars and white citizens.
Reggieís eyes try to warn her away before
she get to the table, but every look is a come-on
a good reason for gettin close to somebody.
this ainít no time for social talkin, but
Charnita ignores all signals and good sense.

the others donít see her till she too close not
to hear their plan. she look at the table
the map of the store. they straighten up.
ten eyes work her body from leg to head
admirin, desirin, despisin the interruption.
nothin moves, like the whole roomís holdin its breath
except for a boa-feather fallin through the smoke
bout to hit the ground loud as a shoe.


Uncle Bobboís Ď61 Deuce, all grille and fins, grinned down the road like a tiger high on last nightís gazelle. My cousins, Eric and Adrian, and I sat in the backseat anticipating ice cream cones. I was older and able to see out the windows without standing. My head was right next to the open window looking at places Iíd rarely seen in town. Uncle Bobbo, Portia and Aunt Nat were perched in the front, deep in conversation too old to be worth a listen. They didnít look back at us. The Tastee Queen driveway was lined with the back ends of some of the best cars outta Detroit, all as indistinct as any car in Ď62, except for the burgundy Chevy Impala, double rear antennas, skirted rear wheels, enough chrome for a blind man to see in moonlight, sitting in the back of the lot. "Thas Lester!" Portiaís whole face was an emergency. She knew that was her husbandís car, with him in it, sitting close to another woman. "No, itís not!" my uncle said, unconvincingly. "Yes, it is!" I said, chin toward them, putting all the familiar symbols together to conclude that that was my next door neighbor, the cool dude with the Kangol and that sharp car, RIGHT THERE, thirty feet from my see-all-evil-eyes. "NO, ITíS NOT!" Bobbo and Nat double-barreled disapproval my way, their eyes large as the "Oís" on a fifty foot Koolís Menthol billboard. I shut up. It was so final that I canít remember if we stayed at the Tastee Queen, or not. The next day my mother said, "Bran, sometimes when adults say things, you should just listen." She said nothing else. I guess she knew I was smart enough to connect the "Oís" and learn. I didnít say a thing.
I was practicing being cool.

betting dad

all i see is the bottoms of bare feet
out of reach up the broad gray trunk
branches yielding to his strangling limbs.
the tree groans as my father digs
heels and toes into crevasses
ants use as pathways.
bark cracks drops around my feet
as from a glass tower pummelled by summer storms.

he beats the tree like all things that rise
above a boyís understanding of earth     life
the mathematical odds of surviving
in a world that will not wait for me to grow.
i watch him     chagrined and fearful of his hold on this
behemoth. i want him back to ground
to safety. i'm willing to lose anything but him to the tree
the yawning sky's jaws
but he digs toes into crackling growth
as carefully down as up.

i didnít know how much money iíd lost
until he and i talked about calculating
one cent doubled every day for thirty.
you donít want to know.
but eight-year-old me hadnít learned
never bet your father      and
never bet a country-boy that he
canít climb a tree barefoot.

Copyright © 1999. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Duplication of this poetry and/or art without permission of the author/artist is forbidden under copyright law. Please ask permission if you wish to use for non-commercial purposes
  Big Cats in Snow Tuesday, July 11, 2000