← Issue 10

One More Dead Poet

by Michelle Johnson-Wang

If only he had lived a little longer, this man, this poet, this veteran of war, this cynicist in public, this romantic in private, a man of average looks and a crooked nose and a dark glare, not the kind of glare you see in mysterious French boys, but the glare common among old American men with watered-down eyes and hard-boiled brains, men who brew their anger into silence, men of very little honor,

now, if you had asked a second year literature student with an exclusively public smoking habit if he had honor they might have said yes, if you had asked their tenured professor who was born during a time when women like her couldn’t even vote she might have said no, she, with her tender and righteous voice, might have said no to this quiet man

who lived alone, who had lived alone for his entire adult life, with no one to wake him when he thrashed about, no one to remind him to buy more milk, a man who moved into an old janitor’s closet in college to settle into his own space, a sorrowful type of independence, that’s a story people like to tell, the one about the janitor’s closet, they always tell it and say gosh what humble beginnings, but no one knew how terrified he was of dying alone, no one knew about the woman who was supposed to be his wife, no one knew why he always wrote about sirens,

this hopeless man who knew his life was coming to an end at a very old age and was still not ready, who had known for a very long time, perhaps since he was just a boy, growing up in stagnant Ohio waters, the most dismal landlocked state, who had decided one night to become a sailor and who had spent the next three years trying to get back to land, who’d been too afraid of drowning, too afraid of dying to discover what he wanted to live for, wanted to stand for, as he sat and studied men he admired, making up stories of glory and greatness in his head,

he observed right up until his very last days, staring out his bedroom window, the empty field of overgrown grass, yellowing like teeth, the branches of a naked oak tree, crooked like his grandmother’s fingers, that would tap against the glass of his window, he couldn’t reach out to hold her hand, the long twisted shadows cast at dawn, he would sit propped up in pain, watching them recede into the tree line, pulling away like an octopus’ tentacles, he would have very much liked to compare those shadows to tentacles in a poem but he could not hold a pen with his own stiff hands, from the arthritis, you see,

if only he had lived a little longer he would have told people that the sirens he wrote about were not the singing mermaids but the whines of an ambulance, the sound which persisted again and again in his memories, the grim reaper’s death knell, the ever-ringing headache,

if only he had lived a little longer he would have remembered the last time he didn’t feel alone, a day caught between the tides of summer and autumn, twelve years old maybe thirteen, a mighty breeze that pinched his pale skin as he stepped out of the pool, his mother waiting for him with a dry towel,

if only he had lived a little longer he would have watched the sun engulf the earth and he would have known exactly how foolish we all were to have ever thought mankind could be saved.


Michelle Johnson-Wang is a Chinese American writer originally from Washington DC. She is currently studying at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Ruminate Magazine, West Trestle Review, Rock & Sling, River River Journal, and elsewhere.

Image: Sketch of a Tree Branch (from Sketchbook VII) by William Trost Richards, The MET, Purchase, Gifts in memory of Stephen D. Rubin, 1992