Two Poems by Johnny Payne

Birds of Fire

We swam Lake Titicaca. Our skin burned.
The water’s icy waves slapped at my face
as we gasped, laughing at how quick we’d turned
the inhospitable into a place

of sudden joy, where pintails sleeked their wings.
Terns and grebes dived, heedless of the cold,
plumed bodies fired by purpose, thoughtful things
resistant unlike us, who were just bold.

Bronchitis left us shivering in a bed
of casual friends whose pity kept us on
yet rued our cocky, foolish youth that led
us to mistake danger for holy fun.

Yet in those seconds while our bodies burned
Our purpose was no different from the tern’s.


Let it Bleed

My family believes a puzzle piece
is missing, that it’s me and if they snap
it in, the family will have peace.
The picture will be whole. They’ll close a gap.

But as I stand outside, I see no space
to fit me in. The edges have gone smooth
where there were lines, effaced into a place
I visit, but its presence doesn’t soothe

the sense of absence, or the phantom limb
they scratch when vanished live flesh tingles
while they touch, and say “This leg was him
whose sudden loss now stings our fingertips.”

That puzzle is one that still puzzles me.
And looking on, I learn that I’m not free.




Johnny Payne is Director of the MFA in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles.  He has published two books of poetry: Vassal (Mouthfeel Press, 2014) and Heaven of Ashes (Mouthfeel Press, 2017).

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