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:
muscadines by lamplight green hope bit, black
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: bit, black
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:
…What 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.
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 breathe
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:
velvet myth 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.