Johnny Horton

Two poems from Johnny Horton’s Dog Days
followed by a note on the author

Sea Legs

Someday we’ll be like the Roman statues of Neptune and Triton
discovered in a sea cave. We’ll be like father and son, remembered
for making waves. Ancient sons became tragic figures. This is why
I prefer modern times to mythology. I’d rather blow my own horn
than listen to old songs. Pliny the Younger understood eternity
began with disaster; residents of Pompeii would be remembered.
Butterflies remember the worst sensations they felt as caterpillars.
Frogs must regret the metamorphosis that ended their schooling.
Otherwise, they wouldn’t sing such mournful songs. Otherwise
they wouldn’t make love for days. Maybe this is why mermaids
look more balanced than fish heads on human legs. Maybe this is why
we call the mackerel holy. Tiberius Caesar called the kids of Capri
little fishes. Pliny said a mushroom cloud looked like an umbrella
pine. Why should we make metaphors more than figures of speech?
Why believe in truth outside sensibility? One way to find the sacred
is not to look for it. In another model, you put on SCUBA gear; dive
in the Etruscan Sea; find yourself facing divinity. It doesn’t matter
if volcanoes change the ocean floor. We love getting in hot water. It
doesn’t matter if we get in over our heads. We have no use for water
wings. Odysseus listened to the Sirens so he could tell the story.
Anchises told Aeneas his mother was a goddess. Memory tells me
I could swim before I learned to walk. This is how I know my mother
loved the sea. I think of Homer on the tongue of Tiberius Caesar
when he couldn’t sleep, when he stayed awake thinking of children
who wanted him dead. Sometimes, the tomcat’s antipathy makes sense.
The channel catfish develops muscle where his brain should be, eats
all the eggs he can as long as he guards the nest. Other fathers
must sacrifice to reproduce. The paper nautilus loses his penis
in the act of love. Anglerfish dissolve like sperm inside their mates.
Sophisticated men may forget their names in orgasmic states.
Maybe that’s why we call on Jesus Christ. Maybe that’s why fathers
teach their children how to fish. Pliny the Younger says his uncle
met a hail of burning pumice wearing nothing but a pillow
for a helmet. Maybe that’s why he looked like he was sleeping
when he was dead. If I knew the language that named Vesuvius
I would tell you what it meant to Tiberius Caesar. I would tell you
the difference between “inferno” and “hearth fire.” Sometimes
it’s better not to know your father.


One day I feel just like an undergrad with Sitting Bull
tattooed on his chest. The next I wonder

if I dismissed John Wayne just to please my friends.
Eurocentric pilgrims see the difference

between the baroque and ruins. The speciation of dogs
is the story of Romulus and Remus

in reverse. You might have heard a woman in stilettos
say standing on her tiptoes made her

observable. Cathedrals forbid naked shoulders. Carabinieri
are bug-eyed cartoon wolves. I saw

Paradise lost on the mosaic floor. Putti weren’t smiling
at themselves. Every ecstatic person

looks feral. Actaeon got so horny his dogs couldn’t sense
his humanity. I credit Disney

with animatronics, fault the Romans for the close shave.
Ovid knew how to make an exit

before the husband’s return. Ovid called fake orgasms
costume jewelry. My Madonna

sang “Like a Virgin.” How do you say love is just a game
of hunting the hunters? I’ve got

old lovers to name like fallen friends. I’ve got stones
to skip across my own Black Sea.

I’ve seen the phosphorescence of jellies out of water.
Fear turns on the most beautiful lights.

Johnny Horton is the son of a Hoosier truck driver and an amateur collage maker. He currently lives in Seattle where he walks dogs and teaches reading and writing at Seattle Central College and Hugo House. He also directs the University of Washington’s summer creative writing program in Rome. He’s published poems in Poetry Northwest, Notre Dame Review, CutBank, The Los Angeles Review, Borderlands, Willow Springs, and in City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poems (University of Iowa Press).

Sea Legs first appeared in The Los Angelers Review; Animatronics first appeared in Golden Handcuffs Review.