2 Poems by Maisha Johnson


mr. lowell's religion class, st. mary's high school

i knew the answer 
to the true or false question, 
and i knew my answer— 
the two were not the same. 
though the words have not stayed 
with me, the idea still circles my head. 
the question of eternal damnation, 
cut down to two lines of black 
words on white paper. mr. lowell 
would mark it correct if i placed 
myself among the condemned— 
it didn’t say so, not exactly, 
but if his church’s communion 
would unlock the gates of heaven, 
then i was barred from holding the key. 
mr. lowell stood under the flag pole 
by the door, so lean, so pious, 
i once tried to peek through 
his clouded door at lunchtime 
to see if he ate anything more 
than leaf-thin communion wafers. 
and so tall, taller still, it seemed, 
when he spoke to us but not 
at us, his eyes lifted to the ceiling 
as if he stood directly below god, 
asking for approval. god sat at the edge 
of my desk, her gray dreadlocks 
dipped in ink black as my pupils. 
she moved a lock to circle 
the wrong answer, my answer. 
afraid mr. lowell would see her, 
and bottle her up in the bulbs above, 
i swatted her aside, and marked 
the answer that damned me— 
or was it false?


for steadiness

i’ve begun to believe 
in my own breath. 
if i wake to the grip 
of fear, 
i whisper a prayer 
for steadiness. 
and if i choke, waiting 
for a return 
of air, my lungs answer 
to faithfulness. 
soon, i’ll have words for shapes 
i blow in dust, 
for wisps from candle wicks. 
i will write them, 
gather them, and lift up 
the holy book. 
when my enemies set 
flame to the text 
of my breath, i will catch 
the ash that falls. 
i’ll mourn for the lost, 
who gasp for breath.



Maisha Z. Johnson is a San Francisco-based queer writer and activist of Trinidadian descent. She is earning an MFA in Poetry at Pacific University, and studied creative writing at San Francisco State University. She lifts up silenced voices and explores the relationship between writing and social change at www.maishazjohnson.com