Johnny Horton

Two poems from Johnny Horton’s All That Seemed Clear

followed by a note on the author



The Widow Lincoln communed with so many spirits
she had to be committed. To be haunted
is to be devoted. To paraphrase the secrets of the dead
you need a medium, a mirror in which you look

forward to appearances. Alcohol
comes from the Arabic word for “makeup.” Maybe
we have to change our looks
if we want communion. We have cocktails

because we can’t stop mixing. We love entertaining
possibilities. What we find intoxicating
we could fall for. What we fall for
makes us smart. Consider the German shepherd

barking at his reflection, the robin that sees in your pane
a blue sky for flying free. Socrates feared poetry
would make people think
their delusions could be true. Wile E. Coyote

shared his critical point-of-view
when he painted the mouth of a tunnel
he thought the Roadrunner could not run through. Maybe
we are innocent when we fall in love. We lose it

when we think we know what’s going on. Facades
are what we put up with
when we feel like hiding. The cover-up is how we live
with politicians. The unattractive Honest Abe

said he’d wear another face
if he had one. The vase our profiles make when we face off
must contain our thirst. We have to make out
if intoxication’s what we want.



Dear John Dillinger

We could rearrange our faces, shave our fingerprints, leave
our legends carved across the walls
that we escaped from. We still wouldn’t
find ourselves
motor-mouthing across the Silver Screen, translated

by Warner or MGM. I’m impressed, not by chilly nights
you spent in barns, regretting
all the hearts you’d broken, the one farm
you’d never return to, the fallow fields, clover
turning blushing cheeks to sunrise, but by the vanishing

act, how you disappeared in the North Woods
just to turn up in Arizona
as an alias, a carnival mask, bullets for teeth
and already gone. If everyone believes you’re someone
else, maybe you are

Humphrey Bogart. Maybe you’re James Cagney, born
to shout insults at the cops. Dear John,
I’d rather not think
the flashbulb’s powder pop
exposed Chicago concrete as your catafalque. I’d rather buy

the myth—how you burned those mortgages in the bank,
paid off so many failing farms. Things
might be easier then. I could pack
my bags, believe around the corner was a place, a station
where I could be another face.



Born on a nuclear submarine base in New England, and brought up on the south shore of Lake Michigan, Johnny Horton lives in Seattle where he teaches literature to veterans and walks dogs. He’s published poems in Poetry Northwest, Los Angeles Review, CutBank, Notre Dame Review, and City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry.

“Spirits” first appeared in City Arts Magazine; “Dear John Dillinger” first appeared in City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry.