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.

What right, for art? A look at “The Last Class” by Ellen Bryant Voigt

Read “The Last Class” here.

Why do poets write poems? I wonder if this question is asked most often by the poets themselves. We spend our days shut away with our own words, filing the edges, hoping what we hone down will become a pure crystal of meaning, a distillation of truth. But the more time we spend with our words, the more we begin to doubt that what we have created holds meaning anymore. Have we, by pruning the boxwood of our words into a perfect sphere, or a flamingo, or any other arbitrary shape of our art, created something more meaningful than the natural chaos of the original shape?

These are the questions Ellen Bryant Voight’s poem “The Last Class” evoke for me. For her, the dilemma is taken a step further: she’s not just writing poetry; she’s teaching it. She is standing in front of young people and saying with authority, “Here—this is how you write a poem,” which is, of course, an impossible task. Richard Hugo wrote that he often started a poetry class by saying, “You’ll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you.” Does the teacher of poetry eventually start to believe what they are teaching is also wrong for themselves?

Voigt starts “The Last Class” as if she were teaching: “Put this in your notebooks: / All verse is occasional verse.” A risky couple of lines to begin a poem. It’s almost like putting the moral of the fable at the beginning—a didactic setup, not what we think of as the start to a lyric poem. But that’s the point: she is bringing didacticism to the forefront right away to prove its weakness as a method for teaching or writing a poem. She wants readers to enter this poem with skepticism because that’s what she’s feeling, too.

The rest of the first stanza sets up a scene for us—one which seemed, in the experience of it, to be an opportunity for a poem. She is in a Greyhound station, and she encounters a drunk man who is bothering a woman. She doesn’t intervene, but we get the idea that Voigt is disturbed by something about the encounter. She describes her mood as “distracted / and impatient.” The stanza concludes:

 A poem depends on its detail
 but the woman had her back to me,
 and the man was just another drunk,
 black in this case, familiar, dirty.
 I moved past them both, got on the bus. 

The speaker seems to feel she missed the opportunity, in her hurry, to see anything that might set this scene apart from all such scenes of mild public disturbance. And there are many questions: what was the woman feeling? Hard to know since she had her back to the speaker. If the man is “just another drunk,” why bother writing about him?

In the second stanza, Voigt considers the process of writing a poem about this scene. I love how layered this poem feels: a poem about a time when Voigt interrogated her motives and process for writing poetry, set within a framework of teaching the process of writing a poem. She writes, “The man is not a symbol. If what he said to her / touches us, we are touched by a narrative / we supply.” Voigt supplies such a narrative for us:

 he meant to rob her of those few quiet
 solitary moments sitting down.
 waiting for the bus, before she headed home
 perhaps in a room in Framingham,
 perhaps her child was sick. 

Voigt shows how a poet—or any writer, for that matter—may have the impulse to flesh out a moment in time to create drama, poignancy, sympathy. We need to know all about this woman to feel sorry for her. We also want to have a reason to dislike this man who does not measure up to our ideas of respectability, and I wonder if this is Voigt’s biggest reason for telling this cautionary tale. The writer, out of prejudice, might humanize the woman but demonize the man who, Voigt says, was saying “‘I’m sorry, / I’m sorry,’ over and over.” Perhaps he is not a demon. Should we make him one, for the sake of a nice, simple poem? Or even for a “larger truth” that we think our fabrication might reveal?

The next stanza has the speaker on her bus, and we see a leap here that helps drive home the dubious nature of creating fake lives for real people for the purpose of the poem: “I postponed my satchel of your poems / and wondered who I am to teach the young, / having come so far from the honest love of the world.” There is nothing unique, to Voigt’s eyes, about this moment, but because she experienced it, and perhaps out of mild guilt for not intervening, she feels the need to write about it. But in writing, she questions the validity of her right to write about the scene because of how little she knows about the altercation and because her limited perspective might lead to the omission of important details.

I’m not sure of the original source of the idea of “coming up for air” in a poem, but it’s an idea I first learned from Tyree Daye, in a workshop during my MFA studies at Converse College. The idea is that the process of writing a poem is akin to swimming through a river of images. Occasionally, the writer must come up for air, departing from image for a moment to make a statement. Voigt does so here, and additionally sets off her statement with a double indent, a space in which the reader also must take a breath: “I wanted to salvage / something from my life, to fix / some truth beyond all change.” This is the idea Voigt’s been leading us towards, but the speaking of the statement is not enough for a good poem. Voigt dives back into the river for a final image. Here are the last lines of the poem: fix
 some truth beyond all change, the way
 photographers of war, miles from the front,
 lift print after print into the light,
 each one further cropped and amplified,
 pruning whatever baffles or obscures,
 until the small figures are restored
 as young men sleeping. 

It seems risky to me that Voigt takes us to a place so disparate for the final image in this poem, but the metaphor is perfect, and the risk pays off. Is it right to restore these youths from death to sleep? Has the photographer—or the poet—created truth, or obscured truth? Does the cropping of an image bring the subject into greater focus, or remove meaning?

A poem is not a snapshot of reality. As a poet, Voigt realizes she will always be cropping the photo to create meaning. She also will always be questioning whether she framed the right subject, whether she captured the correct exposure, whether the details she enhanced led to a poem of substance and truth. It’s a question worth asking, for any writer, who finds themself stealing moments from others’ lives for their poems.

Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.

Voigt, Ellen Bryant. “The Last Class.” Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women’s Spirituality, edited by Marilyn Sewell, Beacon Press, 1991, pp. 290-291.