Fall 2006, Volume 23.1
Michael Johnson was born in Bella Coola, British Columbia, and lives in Vancouver working as an autobodyman and painter. He drives a ’53 Ford pickup called "The People Eater" and plays rugby and cricket. He holds a BA in creative writing from Lewis-Clark State College. His work has appeared in various magazines, including the Malahat Review and Southern Review.
How Water Works
They used to speak of this garden
up some tributary, where fungus and flowers
riddled the moss, and a waterfall feathered
away. The place ached with wetness.
That is how water works: frostsheer
turns talus; rocks bow to frothy fists;
it spills into wombs of peat and stone,
silt and loam, blesses rot with acid teeth
to gnaw and leach the fallen home.
It stokes detritus; entices slugs to stem
and stalk, leaf, limb and trunk, the ruins
of floral palaces; martyrs itself to lichen
and liquorice, mistletoe and moss.
This was the garden they spoke of,
lost, or made up: the mist, the talisman
sun not so much shining as echoing
into amphitheaters of bluebell and boneset,
rattlebox and widowmaker mushrooms.
Perhaps they lied about the place boasting
its ancestry, its pageantry of bloom.
And how that waterfall skeined mansions
of flora with mist that a late frost turned
to moonlit blades. The glassed pistils
and lily stamens, the wild lilac, shone;
fiddleheads, so prone to motion, obeyed
no breeze, heeded no wind suggesting sway,
dance, move. In glossy nests, frozen birds
clutched their hatches, realization come
too late. Dusk moaned of too-heavy trees,
branch explosions, the headlong showers
of tinkle and ring as water fell, oblivious
of the ground it was forever bound for.
Mold musk, cedar, moss.
Grizzlies and gulls hawking their fishwares
beyond the break. At my feet,
a century-old depression,
not fetid bear bed as the others.
They dug these for themselves,
Jason says. Smallpox.
They would go off into the woods
and dig just enough to lay in, and die.
Cottonwood, devil’s club, fiddleheads.
A raven’s cacophony in the canopy.
The wooded wild’s tongue: green, a lexicon
of lusciousness, the boughs brash
with longing: this one a connoisseur of skin,
that one a bard of frailty, echoing
our contagion—our turbulence.
There were maybe ten thousand
of my people… before.
We resume picking black chanterelles
and matsutakes, knowing this much
can we offer in debt, this much only:
that we are heady with the bounty of it all—
this slope and its dead, this garden of graves.
The Church of Purslane and Primrose
Soapberry boughs rasp a solitary song
on the panes. She has only died today,
will not be found till Sunday, five
autumn afternoons. They’ll not notice
her flowerbed’s prim botanicure,
her chimney smokeless in the setting sun.
They will see her empty church pew.
Where she was fixture she is now
a monument of air, an emptiness
the size and shape of her that will fill them.
She cultivated pansies, bursts of purslane
and primrose, apple and cherry trees
that sated the birds with ferment.
Her four sons mark the monument
on the church wall, steads entrusted
to a cause whose cost no one
could explain. What to say of her,
now that her hedges will root and migrate
windward, now that the only thing
in memoriam you can muster
is a curt acknowledgment of her
mastery of flora, her immaculate gardens.
What could you have said, yesterday,
when she needed no blossom just a nod,
a kind call at her fretworked oak door
you’d been meaning to see so, so long?
Before valley this place was silted bedbottom, ocean-
belly, seagut scoured by beastly crustaceans
of unfathomable origin and destiny, for where
can you find them now but in some stone broken
open? Had you told me this rock would bear
my bones I would have laughed and taken
a piece from your hand and skipped it
across the river to see it return where it came from,
where it belongs, this earth that forgets if it is
or sea floor, but basks in starlight and sun,
dying into the bigger body of it all, sunk back, a
from some hand, into depths none of us know.