“Toccata” by Johnny Payne

Best played as encore, fast, light
hitting keys hard, like Yuja Wang
did, trounce, the queen of broken strings.
Fiendish, fleet, pristine clarity
accurate right-hand octaves, span
of her hand the toccata grasps.

Prokofiev would surely gasp
for her fury at speed of light
sailing over dropped bridge spans
because her hands are instead wings
merciless, without charity
a mad wasp whose softest touch stings.

How can I make each last word sing?
Can a poem simply have no gaps?
Must my craft outwit, charily
making lines break almost too late
or is the secret about Wang’s
force, how the note like a coin spins?

The left-hand octave fourths, keys spring
as if they will detach from the springs
like joy in the pain of birth pangs
first gasp and last gasp the same gasp.
Wang attacks, attacks and won’t let
sound loose from grasp, she’s too wary.

Spectators upright, none weary.
First chairs, conductor and unsung
stagehands watch cracks of light
peep between her fine, quick fingers
ones even the light can’t quite grasp.
Wood pegs pop while steel strings ping.

Toccata not four minutes long
for her a sprinter’s mile, clearly
the fastest on record. You gasp
though not because it’s fast. You’re stunned
because its beauty lingers
long after she’s gone in the night.

Wang’s strings, keys bring light, clarity.
Our attention span grows. We grasp
for the emotion, and it flees.




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).

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).