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?
i’ve begun to believe
in my own breath.
if i wake to the grip
i whisper a prayer
and if i choke, waiting
for a return
of air, my lungs answer
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.