Reviewers of Marilyn Johnston’s first poetry collection, Silk Fist Songs, have been enthusiastic. Clare Rossini has said, “How is it that death, its brutal emptying out, provokes our ripest understandings; that grief, like poetic form, conditions and frees the heart into song? These are the mysteries at the heart of Marilyn Johnston’s beautifully realized collection, which was begotten in the loss of a father and brother. But how much life is in these poems, in their depiction of family, of childhood memory, of evolving love…! Ms. Johnston’s sensibility has all the lush realism of one of those wonderful 17th Century Dutch portrait painters: one wants to reach out and touch the page-become-canvas, so vividly do these poems embody their characters. But—another mystery—it’s her verbal precision that produces the allusiveness of Ms. Johnston’s music, allowing the poems to pierce through to the great powers see-sawing through our lives. In one poem she tells of the painstaking care with which the “Lord of Broken Things” would restore salvaged items ‘by hand, or mind, or magic.’ I say, praise that Lord, patron deity of this meticulously crafted and profoundly moving book.” For his part, Doug Anderson has commented that “Marilyn Johnston’s poems are written exactly where feeling becomes language, as if conceived in that moment just before sleep when we let down our guard and open to our own wholeness. They are beautifully crafted, but even more importantly, the poet has been relentless in her avoidance of the false note. These poems are true, and human, and ones you’ll want to live with. This is a very strong first book.”

Marilyn E. Johnston was born and raised in Hartford in a lineage of Connecticut Irish farmers on her mother’s side and Illinois Finnish immigrants on her father‘s. Recipient of an MA in English from Trinity College, for many years she pursued a career in insurance communications, a career she abandoned in order to concentrate on the writing of poetry. In the past decade, her work has received five Pushcart Prize nominations and has appeared in numerous literary journals including The Worcester Review, Atlanta Review, South Carolina Review, and Poet Lore. Her chapbook Against Disappearance was published as finalist for the 2001 Redgreene Press Poetry Prize. Commitments to poetry and to community have led her to work in the Bloomfield Public Library, where she directs a poetry series presenting area writers to an ever-expanding audience. With her husband, Ray, she lives on an old farm in Bloomfield, Connecticut.

Click here to read four sample poems.

Click here to view Marilyn E. Johnston’s upcoming events.

Click here to read ancillary material in the Seminar Room.


ISBN: 978-0-9798451-1-6
96 pages, 6" x 9" perfect bound


A fat rubber tire appears overnight,
propped on the sagged front stoop
of our dirt-packed yard. Rainbows of dews
in the spare grass sparkle and wink.
So I get myself curled in that hole
packed tight as a fetus,
a girl inside a wheel. Unseen beyond,
above, my brother floats, lifts, pushes
and I’m spun around the axis of myself,
feeling each part shift, rise, and turn
down slow-turning
feet over spine, legs overtopping
head, the earth become sun, the clouds
become ground until I, dizzying
in the whorl of the me / not / me / not / me
call out for him to Stop!
Then body pressed to a rim-ache,
I roll on my edge in a flattening wobble
like a spun coin until the world slides
to its rest in a perfect standstill.


You are not supposed to run with boys
     but here you are, dancing foot to foot
in impromptu “tag,” your side of a boundary hedge,

when Billy leaps the divide and tackles
     you, flat on your back
on the just-mowed lawn:
     Billy Something...Smith...
straddling your pin-straight thighs,

his freckled-face, light-outlined frame, arms
     stretched over you, rapidly scooping thick
fistfuls of fresh-cut grass
     and stuffing them in your mouth,
his whole weight almost nothing then —
     but how it pins you.

His delirious teeth, sky-aimed laugh,
     and the sneer, blocking air.
You can’t move. The sky’s careened off, shifted.
     His grip on your wrists
catches you both helpless, where
     there is no line, no play. No mercy.

Wide-eyed look into wide-eyed look,
     he pushes off, scrambles up, and runs.
You lie quietly staring
     straight up
into a sky full of branches and deeper
     into those dark leaf-edges
splintering the sun.


Saturday mid-day quiet, alone with him
reveling to be just us four camped
in Mom’s dustless unlived living room.
Dad’s teaching us the sequence
of winning hands and how to bet
at poker. Big lanky knees tower
beside us as he leans in, holding
cards close to his chest, cigarette smoke
curls from his lip. Kenny, Elaine, and I
plumped around the low table
like sitting ducks. Thick workman’s fingers
shuffle, cut, and deal one-handed
sleight-of-hand mystery. We soar
on the rare joy of conspiracy and shady
communion. He is the father
of uncertainty and intermittent
flying card tricks. We always have mother
for ordinary truth. Then, dark eyes
fixed on the shuffling deck, he says:
“You know your mother’s
gone.” We look up awe-struck. “Yeah –
she got so sick of you kids
fighting all the time. She told me
she was going. And she left.” Nonchalant
blue-shadowed face in afternoon shadow
gives nothing away. In the card-click
silence, Kenny begins to whimper
first. Then Elaine blushes red
and sobs. I watch that long cool
face, one small muscle of his mouth
moving in surprised pleasure
at the strength of his words. I hang back
distanced, feeling almost disdain
for the others’ weakness. I am betting everything
on that warm, baritone patter and
dark-glint magician’s gaze. He keeps on dealing
without blinking.


Better not to know what’s ending
at the time it is the very last of youth
and summer played out, racing you through
the screen door, nightly, after supper
to the ritual sport we called “Bad
Mittens,” holding back even our teen-aging,
to face off, play in your late summer leave
before Vietnam, before my return
to campus and the first drafts into protest.
We didn’t know ourselves, saw only the past stretch
the summer out between us like a net
to hold us there, in place, twirling
weightless balsa rackets in mid air.

“Dreamer” you had already dubbed me
with my books and determined study habits.
“Realist” I guess that made you, with your
sleek leather jacket and mirror-chrome
cycle revved and straddled, roaring out of
Belden Street when the sun went down.

Through the swaying net I see you waiting,
your head tilted straight back,
poised, gathering your force, your eyes
squinting for something coming down, while you gauge
the precise moment, meet and release
a powerful upswing that shoots the “white bird”
whistling up so high above the trees
I nearly lose it, until it screams back down
on my side, faster than I can ready.
I stagger, swing blind, connect
almost by chance, fumble, hoping
just like you, to give with all I have,
not to mess up. In the solid thrumming

of stiff webs our hearts
seem intent to defy gravity,
keeping one almost completely obscured
white-feathered bird balanced aloft
between the marching clouds
and the darkening grass, between
the weathered garage wall and Mom’s fallen
roses, between the two of us, brother,
never to have it sink nose-deep in leaning grass,
but we would serve it

back up, from side to side, the ascent
and descent repeated in prolonged
suspense — loving antagonists
in need of each other
to define ourselves against
a growing twilight.

When the sun dropped a final time
behind the maples, our summer broke.
We were launched, life’s fresh blood
caught in a cruel and bewildering net
of history.


She opens the window to the spring night air
so cigarette smoke will flow out
to the conspiring maple leaves.
She uses a Victorian hinged brass heart
for the ashes, its knob a sharp-cut rose

with a rhinestone center.
If she keeps her bedroom door closed
there’s just her self and the girl in the mirror,
the one growing strange to the house.
She snaps the little heart shut,

blows the last smoke stream
through the screen. She is in the trees up here,
no one sees her. No one enters this room
since her sister left, married last June.
It’s all her own: cluttered night stands,

rising barricade of papers and books,
unending tenors on the hi-fi.
There is a war in the house. Her brother’s
groans harrow chaos like a wounded animal’s.
Back from Da Nang, he’s entrenched

in his spartan room, caught
in torments so real, yet mysterious
no one can name them. She thinks: I am not brave enough
to go to him. Her brother screams again, alone.
You buckin’ for a Section 8?” Father yells
then slams the front door. Another

fight ended, sides squared off. She believes
the sound of pain. She studies the girl
in the mirror with frightened eyes
aching at the hard line
drawn down the center.


I’ve brought him poems, packeted, sealed
like a too-late shaman‘s cache of herbs.
He returns huffing at dumb hospital rules,
shoving some sort of a chair with his knees.
“Sit down!” He sinks back in bed. I sit
on a covered potty with hand-rails.
Our talk for two hours never lifts
above the Red Sox chances, New York’s best
sausage sandwiches, and lousy hospital food.

He studies the poem envelope. “For your ‘perusal’–
that a real word?” He looks at me. “Sure.”
“You sure?” “Sure I’m sure,” my steadied sound.
Sun-streaked rain taps the window.
He tugs and shifts his tethered tree of bags.

When at twilight, dwindling
out of harmless words I, reluctant, stand,
all volumes of untold secret
fears and fevers pour up from him
suddenly to clasp me crying back down
like frantic claws.

In our family
speech has almost always been
about nothing. But the leaving,
the leaving...

Back to the TOP of the page