photo by Ellyn Behan
Having written powerfully about her love for and loss of a brother and father in her first book, Marilyn Johnston now focuses on the women of her family: great grandmother, grandmother, sister, and—most of all—mother and daughter. The focus is on transformation. The poems document Johnston's liberation as daughter, working woman, and poet; they also illuminate the way in which her relationship with her mother has grown, as each has learned greater understanding of the other. And the poet’s mother is shown to have grown emotionally as a result of losing her husband and allowing her emotions to reveal themselves unabashedly. The book presents some painfully poignant poems about her last days with the poet's father and her early days of widowhood. This is strong stuff, and all the stronger because the poet has presented it in mythical and archetypal terms, raising it from what might have been merely personal to a more universal level, one which relates to all of us and makes this a book that will leave its readers much enriched.
cover photography by Tom Nicotera

Early readers of Weight of the Angel have been enthusiastic. Gray Jacobik comments as follows: “‘The heart suppressed / only deepens,’ the poet writes in Weight of the Angel, the latest collection of poems from Marilyn Johnston. And oh my, but how generously that deep heart opens in poems so real they lose their status as made objects and become coterminous with being. What lingers in these luminous, transparent poems, is the music captured in lines such as these: ‘Remorseless, she’s swept every table bare of violets, / some thrown out in full bloom, like violence / heaped on violence that has taken all she loves...’ I imagine it’s taken Johnston ‘all she loves’ to have written these heartbreaking and memorable poems. Read them at risk: they may deepen your heart.” And this from Dick Allen: “Marilyn E. Johnston’s new collection is a tribute to family, particularly to the lives of women, and by extension to the lives of all women. Reading Johnston’s poems, we are often in the place of her college self: ‘Stunned, / frightened, exhilarated, almost panicked / to be confided in.’ The poems are filled with abundant love and forgiveness, and they are written with meticulous precision. In her title poem, Johnston has vowed, ‘We will not loosen our fierce grip / on the indifferent past’ and by using small dramas, utterly specific imagery and description, her gifted and gifting eye, expert touches of indirection and perfect closures, she renders the past unforgettable. Weight of the Angel is a book of such close-seeing and pitch it compels us into understanding how we, also—in our imaginations and realities—may simultaneously trap and set free those we love.”

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, and her first full-length collection, Silk Fist Songs, appeared in 2008. Commitments to poetry and to community have led her to work in the Bloomfield Public Library, where she directs a poetry series presenting Connecticut writers to an ever-expanding audience. With her husband, Ray, Marilyn Johnston lives on an old farm in Bloomfield, Connecticut.

See below for sample poems by Marilyn Johnston

For another book by Marilyn Johnston, see Silk Fist Songs. Click here for a televied appearance on SCTV.

Click here to view Marilyn Johnston’s upcoming events

Click here to read Marilyn Johnston's ancillary material in the Seminar Room


ISBN 978-0-9823970-1-5 Copyright ©2009
Length: 86 pages, 6" x 9" paperback 




The first grade photo—oval face,
parted mouth, appealing eyes—
is black and white, but I remember
that blue, cornflowers scattered
on a field of white, blue velvet
bows at the puffed sleeves.
I twirled the full skirt wide
and wider in the bare-furnished
room, dancing delirium into such
a beautiful flare before going
to Grandma’s Easter morning. I thought
I must have stumbled onto some new
wrong flashed by her startled scowl
in the doorway, mouth
a thin-pressed line, eyes
averted and saying nothing.
I dropped quickly down,
folding myself
into the big wicker chair.


Back from college, second year, sure
I’m hiding smoking from her completely.
“Can I borrow a cigarette?” She pushes up
sideways from the couch. I offer her one.
The living room is shadowed, emptied
like a field of battle after the blasts of war
Ken and Dad have stormed through again.
’Nam is nothing to her. Her Family
is breaking. “Dad drunk?” I ask. Her slump
answers. She doesn’t know where they are. She’s
defeated, out of ideas and the will
to hold exploding forces
together. She smokes the cigarette slowly
then faces me in the gloom: “What have I done?
...What can I do, now?” Stunned,
frightened, exhilarated, almost panicked
to be confided in, I begin shakily
explaining, wondering, even scrambling
for the yellow-highlighted paragraph
in a psych book I was just tested on...

But her worry eyes show presence
far off. I am alone. My body relaxes
reflexively. When, quickly, I
wind up my earnest
speaking into her silence,
I’m home.


Come On!” Mother yells at our girls
on the TV women’s basketball team
of my alma mater for which she displayed
little to mild interest when I was a student
struggling to win my own games, for her.
Leaving her condo today, I pull into our town
monastery parking lot near the rusted hoop
with its net of shreds. Reach in the trunk, lift out
the tensed ball, run the length of the cracked
asphalt court alone, dribbling at a heavy
jog. Over and over I bounce, set, heave
the ball high, miss by a yard, focus wrong.

Thick scrub of forsythia deftly
snags and rolls the ball back to me.
My breath comes in easy bursts, the hills
thin to their transparent blue. Then:
there, all along, in the adjacent field
dozens of clumsy slow-strolling
Canada Geese spread out in the low mist,
stand at their feed in the reaped rows.
Vainly I bend, bounce, run again,
aim the ball and miss. Then a last shot
goes in! No one watches. One goose
stumbling up a furrow crest, back turned,
rises on its toes and claps its wings.


How has Mother come to know
I’d like this? Clean white walls, Indian rugs, oat-
filled eye pillows. Essential
oils, oriental incense. We pick up
and spin a carved Tibetan wheel touching,
at one go, a stored gamut of prayers for all those
in our care. “10,000 Ways to Say
I Love You”— my mother waves
the paperback... “And one of them is tuna fish!”
I call back (her gift for lunch). But
she doesn’t hear. Or she will never show
she hears. “Let Go of Your Fear...
and that My Friend is Love,” she recites from
a coffee mug. Side by side, by the zen
waterfalls, I whisper, “This is fun, poking.”
“I always liked to poke,” she intones
as if we’ve both died. “You
never did.” No. I never did. Know-
What-You-Want, Walk-Straight-In-Buy-It-
And-Walk-Straight-Out: Dad’s
motto. What have I missed, clinging
to his mottos? We bump and drift
amid Taoism, Reiki instruction, irrefutable
eye-witness accounts of the visits
of angels. Rain patters the storefront glass.
Last year she would’ve kept strides ahead,
shouldering along, resolute in the Plan,
never to arrive at the elusive place
expected. Now we go at the same pace, let mirrors
catch our faint resemblance framed
by sun and moon. Beside mailbox birdhouses
and bunches of sacred purification
sage: “O, can’t I buy you something?” She lifts
hopefully a bag of Merlin’s Crystals. I choose
six sticks of sandalwood incense to appease
childhood’s look of longing in her eyes.
She lays down the coins
in triumphal ritual transaction.
Walking home, the skies open and we’re caught out
in joy, jogging like crazy girls by the cemetery,
calling to each other through the streaming downpour.


Showing them off:
her pride to count the buds
on their slim thread-necks
drooping like the heads of shy children.
She and Grandma shared cuttings:
two become four, become eight, sixteen
plants enjoying constant lavished care.

On the table by the picture window: thick,
fuzzed plants unyankable even in decay
burgeoning velvet leaves with fresh blooms
in full glory over-spilling rims.
Pot-bound, they’d get moved to bigger pots.

Always a tray of them somewhere: back room
Ellington Street, Bissell Street, Belden,
by her bay window in the trailer and later
condo den. When Grandma died,
she adopted all her orphans, nurturing...

When Dad sickened, failed
and wanted to try sleeping in the den,
she moved all the violets to the hall.
The last few crammed for months
jostled in the shadows, leaves
succumbing to black mold
doused in absent-mindedness without joy.

I enter the condo, five months since he died.
Remorseless, she‘s swept every table bare of violets,
some thrown out in full bloom, like violence
heaped on violence that has taken all she loves
and expects her to go on. The violets? “Ah,
Plants! They’re just a bother.
Always needin’ something!”


We are struggling to transfer a rose bush
between our cars, Mother and I.
Before I lift, she stands
old blooms: “Couldn’t recall
if you had any roses
out there, where you are—
do you?” I do,
roses on roses, but, no matter...
I have
the delicate old-fashioned pink of her rose, now.
I have
the massy earthen weight of this root.

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