This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features two poems by Jeff T. Johnson. Listen to recordings of “Last Poem” and “Last Poem #7” on our Soundcloud page. 

Last Poem


There is no address or the audience is multiple

So that I am always writing to you and do not think your name

You say what do you want and you are looking at me so I know you mean me

You say I never thought this list of language was poetry then try to give me credit

You say I am a good writer but you do not read my poems

The freshest poems have no sell-by dates

I am not sure the typing of poems or the reading of typed poems does anything

And why should it do anything when people are killed for running from danger

When poems should either help people get away or keep people from shooting

Or poems should dissolve the whole system and stop holding up the language

I have been writing for so long even after recognizing what is needed

Is that we make less stuff poems included particularly my poems and yours

Don’t imagine anyone but you is reading this poem I mean what are the chances

Yesterday a poem settled upon my shoulder only it was much heavier

Than it first appeared it was a whole regime of poetic ideas ugh it was crushing

The ground rose up to meet the sky it was one of those thick skies full of

Bad rain or worse snow or some slick cold alliance of rain and snow

Some yes wintry mix set upon your skull determined to fuck your life

This is what poetry should be some vast inconclusive portent

A refusal to resolve a dynamic tension with the string pulled out

A collapse of fur and sentiment a pile of consonants on the meridian

A promise to shut the fuck up poetry should be an ear poetry should listen to itself

In disgust poetry should stop telling itself what to do poetry should grow a second mouth

That doesn’t work poetry should be the way out poetry what have you done for us

Poetry the time is now and you have already said too much poetry I refuse your advances

Poetry I will go anywhere you say as long as it is not described in verse

Poetry I would rather listen to music poetry you have ceased to be music

There is no address but we know where we live

So that we are always writing ourselves letters we will never read


Last Poem #7


Because every poem is a suicide note

Because every poem kills itself

Because we kill ourselves in poems

Because death is inevitable and poetry is merely impossible

Because you are not you and I am not I

Because poems are for sale in stores

Because we cannot write without reading

Because we would rather write than read

Because we would rather read than write

Because we are not ourselves because we is no different than you or I

Because we is poison in the mouth because you and I are choking on our tongues

Because our legacy is death

Because we write on paper or we write on slave-built machines that output to paper

Because the weather is definitely getting worse

Because we cannot outlive the earth

Because we are embarrassed by this fact

Because our songs do not die with us but they will die with the planet

Because we are appalled by the word planet

Because we are each other but we are alone

Because we are reading our own poems and reproducing our own language

Because this sounds like getting off but we cannot get off

Because language does not fit in our mouths

Because breath was given to us and we took it

Because poetry is breath and thought and breath and thought are in short supply

Because I love you no less because we are both dead

Because you and you and you are I and I and I



Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the PEN Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).