Spare Words, Lush Words: Taylor Johnson’s “Virginia Slim”

Read Johnson’s first “Virginia Slim” here and the second here.

There’s a magical thing that happens when I copy a page or two from a book of poetry and begin marking them up with pencil. Something about messing up the page helps me begin to see the poet’s writing process, to see form that was unclear in the clean book. When I first read two poems, both titled “Virginia Slim,” from Taylor Johnson’s book Inheritance, I had an idea something interesting was going on. The title was the first clue, of course, but only after I laid these poems side-by-side did I begin to see what was really going on.

The first “Virginia Slim” we encounter when reading the book is unconventional on the page; most of the lines are nearer the right margin, spaced to create a kind of curve in towards the center of the page and then back out to the right margin. But a few words (seven total) are left adjusted. These are so distanced from the ones on the right that it is difficult to tell with certainty where they fall in the lines, which led me to read the poem two ways: first, as two separate stanzas or sections, and second, with both columns together, piecing the lefthand words into the righthand section. The left-justified words are a sharp distillation, the least number of words with which the poem can create meaning and emotion. They are enough, just barely:


by lamplight

green hope



The space helps, too, adding weight, adding the room the reader needs to manifest image from word. And the image is so clear: the grapes, unripe green globes, are “bit” and then “black.” The ripening of the fruit begins with hope and is fulfilled in the tasted sweetness of the black grape. But the muscadine is more than itself, of course.

Along the righthand side of the page, some of the narrative begins to fill in. The speaker becomes present, as well as another person: “I lit his cigar”; “I rode / to the edge of / his house.” The relationship isn’t clear, though there seems to be a power dynamic of some sort, where the speaker is constrained by or indebted to this other person. The hope of the lefthand section is missing. Johnson writes, “ – I stuffed my mouth / landless” and “what are you supposed to believe; / am I              to enter the world / low:       in the dirt:”

Read together, the lefthand side becomes less hopeful, and the “bit, / black” grows sinister rather than sweet:

                                                                                what are you supposed to believe;
green hope                                                             am I             to enter the world
                                                                                              low:             in the dirt:



The speaker is the grape, and the ripening is a coming of age. But the bitterness here is that the speaker’s ripeness is pain, too: they enter the world without agency, and hope gives way to mistreatment. The color association is an overt reference to racial injustice which the speaker endures. The sliver of hope which remains is present through the framing of these lines as a question.

The second “Virginia Slim” is more standard in appearance, and it includes much more narrative than either portion of the first “Virginia Slim.” It describes a southern morning in the country:

                …The land
leaning in the pines,
the well, cattails,
muscadines, hot metal
in the shed, chicory on
the stove at twilight.

The images are lush and warm, and they give way to a narrative about the speaker riding in their grandfather’s truck, considering their inheritance and coming of age, their place in the world, and the injustice of life as well as the beauty. Johnson writes:

did I know about being
hunted? I knew
everything. The meek
don’t inherit shit – I 
stuffed by mouth with
pine needles and spit, bled
and spit, at the 
root, and look where it’s
got me – landless.

and also

me and my green hope
pressing through the 
black. How else am I
supposed to enter the 
world if I’d already left
once: as myth: not set
apart: but as a small
shelled thing: low:
toiling in the dirt: lifting
every bit of black to

Despair, yes—but also triumph. Johnson doesn’t negate the difficulties of life as a black, queer person in America. But they don’t disparage the hope, the striving toward life, either.

And now, for the magical moment. I looked at these two poems and realized the first “Virginia Slim” is nearly a perfect erasure of the second. Only one phrase—“. I lit his cigar”—is included in the first poem and not the second. Thus, the narrative builds and is fleshed out in degrees: first we have the seven-word version; then the slightly longer telling of the entire first poem. But with this second “Virginia Slim,” we get a whole world. The hope, despair, and loveliness. The love of the grandfather. The home, the inheritance, in all its imperfection. The first “Virginia Slim” moves only one word out of order for its erasure. The “myth” which builds at the end of the second poem is present instead at the beginning of the first:

muscadines                                                                             at twilight.

Johnson’s circle is close to perfection for me. The myth builds, dissolves in despair, and is reborn. As a writer, I’m especially drawn to Johnson’s choice to keep both these poems. Sometimes, I whittle down a poem to its barest structure and think I’ve distilled it into its best form. But Johnson holds both versions up as complete. I agree. Not only are these poems both complete and captivating, including both versions enhances each. The initial “bit,” / “black” becomes “lifting / every bit of black to / breathe.” How beautiful, this resurrection, this unfolding from spareness to lush detail. Johnson is able to find themself and the legacy of their family. Trauma and goodness, woundedness and resilience, despair and hope. May we all find ways to lift those mired in prejudice and racism toward breathing.

Johnson, Taylor. “Virginia Slim,” Inheritance, Alice James Books, 2020.

A Poem Up Close: Eulogy for the 40th

As I approach the graduation date for my MFA, I’m realizing how much I will miss exploring poets and looking closely at poems which I found intriguing.

So I’ve decided to publish some of these thoughts here. Some of the posts will be work I wrote in the MFA; others will be new poems I’ve encountered which I feel I’d benefit from dissecting. I hope you find these posts interesting; my goal here will be to keep delving deep in my reading, even though I won’t have mentors and deadlines asking this work of me.

Qwo-Li Driskell’s Walking with Ghosts exposes the intersection of two marginalized populations in the US: the queer community and the indigenous population. The focus of Driskell’s academic work, Cherokee Two-Spirits and Cherokee gender identities prior to colonization, seems to also be the focus of Driskell’s poetry. I think this intersection is important for me to consider because it is one answer to a question I’d like to explore further: how can the sacred (for Driskell, the sacred is embedded in cultural identity: language, heritage, tradition) and activism find common ground within poetry?

At the heart of the collection is the poem “Eulogy for the 40th.” A eulogy itself is a type of sacred text, a testament to a life, a meditation upon or prayer for a deceased loved one. This poem is a critique of America’s “sacred” grounds: war, bigotry, and Christianity, set up for us by an epigraph from the book of Matthew. Alongside these critiques, we find a counter-narrative of sacredness in Driskell’s ghosts, here referring, I think, to AIDS victims and other gay men who lost their lives during the Reagan administration.

Driskell’s use of the first person plural evokes a liturgical responsive reading: “We’re tired,” “We don’t care,” “We sing,” “We died” (8, 15, 42, 56). The imperative “say it” towards the end of section I and at the start of section II further sets the piece up as something spoken aloud as a group. Section II brings in a counter-liturgy for the oppressor, the “you” in the poem: “Go on, rewrite / history. Name him Father of Peace” (28-29). “Father of Peace” is the rewriting of “King of Lies” from section one. Both these titles have a biblical feel about them, “Father of Peace” being a conglomeration of “God the Father” and “Prince of Peace” (Jesus), whereas “King of Lies” brings to mind “Prince of Lies” (the Devil). Reagan is represented by these opposing views as a hyperbolic biblical figure of either good and evil, respectively.

Repetend, such as the repeating of the Matthew epigraph in lines 27-28 and 36-41, strengthens the cadence of “Eulogy for the 40th,” evoking song refrain, chant, or mantra, as well as public speech. The first line of the poems is also repeated, but as the poem progresses, words are removed to alter the meaning. This erasure mimics the lives lost to AIDS, but it also has redemptive power. The original phrase reads, “When I kiss my lover, a generation of ghosts rises like dust” (1). It is repeated verbatim once and then is pared down over three repetitions to ultimately read, “When I kiss my lover, / a generation rises” (24, 68, 75-76). I am reminded by this final rising of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” which may have been an intentional reference by Driskell.

The final repetition is the beginning of the letter to Reagan in the poem’s final section. Because the letter is written to Reagan a week after his death, it takes on a spiritual tone, bringing to mind an incantation. The power of the incantation lies in the gentleness of the language and the immediacy of the imagery. While other sections of the poem sweep across years and histories, this final stanza is a single moment at Reagan’s funeral. With this focused-in lens, the poem becomes tender, less a raging fire and more a candle flame, a spark of hope.

“Eulogy for the 40th” doesn’t address Driskell’s spirituality as directly as other poems in this collection. However, Driskell’s heritage of the sacred, informed by his Native American roots, is central to his identity and thus invades the poem in subtle ways. I think the central image of the poem, the ghosts rising, which is also reminiscent of the collection’s title, certainly has the feel of the spiritual. Ritual incantation and chant inform the structure of the poem. Also, because Christianity was forced on native peoples as a way to erase them, the use of the Matthew passage and the erasure of “When I kiss my lover, a generation of ghosts rises like dust” create an anti-spirituality, a desecration of true sacredness, which, for Driskell, lies in the remembrance of ancestors and the rediscovery of lost culture.

Driskell, Qwo-Li. “Eulogy for the 40th.” Walking with Ghosts. Salt, 2005, pp. 40-45.