Johnny Horton

Two poems from Johnny Horton’s Vesuvius After Dark

followed by a note on the author

Sea Change

Someday we’ll be taken with one another, impressed
like sailors on a voyage of discovery, coupling

rum rations with no idea of where we’re going, hoping
the most important epiphanies happen once

you’ve left the ones you love. Grief is what you feel
in waves. Fish tales are how we feed ourselves

on noble lies. I could be comforting, talk about myths,
like dolphins dropping mariners on the beach.

I could justify Columbus seeing mermaids in the manatees.
Pliny the Elder couldn’t bring himself to eat

the creatures of the deep. He believed his tears
improved his vision. Maybe crying helps people see

from someone else’s point of view. Maybe weepers
make the greatest liars. Every night, Columbus deceived

his crew, undercounting miles they’d gone from Spain.
My equation for staying up all night includes a nest

from which we navigate by stars. I need to hear
your voice. I need to touch your cheek while you’re posing

questions to the sky. In the scope between us, dawn
turns water pink. Maybe our devices make us think

there’s so much space between the future and communion
we’d better not act. Consider the Mediterranean

woodcock. With eyes that see 360 degrees,
it’s become the Isle of Capri’s perfect prey, slow movement

being a consequence of too much sight. I’d rather observe
the Venezuelan anablep, otherwise known

as the four-eyed fish, the pisces
that enjoys cumulonimbus and the bottom of the lake

in one continuous view. Look: It thrives on nothing but air
as it scans the surface for a mate. Don’t make me sing

“Love Boat,” auf Deutsch: Das Liebe Schiff
versprechen etwas für jedermann
. Our language survives

the promises we make. Our vessels carry us
up until the breaking point. One way you learn to swim

is by getting in over your head. Pliny the Elder
said people were the only animals to regret getting close, to act

like strangers on the day after they’d gone to bed. The truth
is, some dolphins love drowning sailors. Some

lovers feel current once they’ve come ashore, the sea
being what they can’t ignore. What we walk away from

we leave unexplored.



Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire…
—Lord Byron

Maybe we were sired by the lumber mill, brought up to suck
life from oyster shells, to crosscut
cedar trees and count the rings. Imagine the scene
from 300 years before Washington

crossed the Delaware. So many people have died
we must believe that some still walk.
Take my recent ex, who couldn’t get off
until I wore a turtleneck. Take my hometown developers,

who imagined the Hellenistic confines of the Carnegie Library
reborn as a parking lot. I remember
watching Frankenstein in the art deco theater
whenever I visit the ATM

where it used to stand. What’s invisible needs us
to live. Lord Byron dared his friends to write, knowing deadlines
brought creatures to life. What if
George Washington had been raised by wolves? What if

we must be open to change? Chickens have eyes
that regenerate their lenses
once you remove their lenses. The immortal Chinese jellyfish
tastes like saffron

if it’s braised in saffron. Maybe we have poor taste
because being offensive is the best defense. Maybe Lord Byron
figured vampires were fathers
because he found his father draining. Washington

cured the common cold with leeches. Egyptians
fought infection with maggots. The survivors of Lord Byron
preserved his corpse in rum
so we can say the spirit saved his heart.


Johnny Horton was born on the US Navy base in New London, Connecticut, grew up in Northwest Indiana, and now lives in Seattle where he walks dogs and teaches literature to combat veterans. He co-directs the University of Washington’s summer creative writing program in Rome, and his poems have appeared in Horsethief, Poetry Northwest, Notre Dame Review, Scoundrel Time, Los Angeles Review, and Willow Springs.

Sea Change and Vampyres first appeared in Notre Dame Review.