Joanna Lee


–for D., as promised

Sometimes all it takes is the slightest pressure.
The smallest lapse in communication
between two bodies, a miscalculation of angle
or look or force. The whole world wears genes
frayed at their edge: barely breathing disturbs
the cadence of waterfalls, the equilibria of
countries crisscrossed by suture lines & stapled shut
by hands who never studied anatomy.

Listen: no wonder the view through the windshield
is dark and out of focus. Everything trickles down.
The sky barely misting, the gunshots closer to home,
my father in his faraway wood forgetting
the phone on the bathroom sink. Listen.
Distance is a tricky thing.
Who’s picking up when you’re calling?
What names do you cry out to the starless night?

This is where it begins again. You and the rain,
the songs you choose to sing when no one else hears.
Breaking open, your body
spilling its secrets all over the driver’s seat.
You see? It doesn’t always smell like death.
The burn in the back of the throat says something
is changing, that it’s ok to come apart

before we are put back together.

Falling is Nothing

half so cruel or transcendental
as a child’s schoolyard laughter
before they have learned
to make promises, like the lonely breath
of a storm, or the wet weight
of a hundred angels hiking
along our spines as they stoop to kiss
the knot at the base of the skull
with their wingtips before swooping off
into the dark of a summer night
to answer the blink of some other firefly.

East End

Like so many things, we measure
the night in sirens, curtains open
and the fickle smell of April trickling through
the screens. Someone out there is dying,
but it is too far to touch, the nightwail
a wash of something frail and sad.
We pull the dark in closer, toes tight,
wrap it like a sheet when it is too hot
for sheets, listen for the lullaby
of windchimes, of silence, make a late
Father Son Holy Ghost, eyes closed, know
there is a turn in this dance for us all.

Close to Home

It’s one of those things
we never talk about.

how the drip of ice
melting in the dark falls
like the saddest rain—some line
from Neruda, some trigger

how the glistened drops die
a thousand small deaths,
shudder drying on black asphalt,
become the tracks of another
Chicago greyhound midnight
skidding into tomorrow.

we do this: change the pronouns,
lay the lines down like sheets
to soften our endings,

and break and break
until we are more wound than muscle,
held together by thread not our own.

close to unwinding, we pass grief like a bottle,
leaving the thaw to find us on wet knees.

Blurred Edges

The blink of windshield glare
is familiar, like maybe this is a dream i dreamt,
how the Christmas lights still strung
by the house beside the overpass
look like a strangled angel

though it’s almost Valentine’s Day,
and this is not a cupid type-angel—
which might make sense
if the homeowner had been,
you know, jilted—but a long, lean one

you could imagine with a trumpet
or a dove or even a sword if its head
hadn’t been bowed at such a god-awful angle.

the angel hangs from a maple skeleton
that might in fact be oak, but probably
isn’t. it’s hard to say in the dark.
i don’t come this way at night
if i can help it.

i have a friend who lives a few streets over,
near the Diamond, the ball field
they’re going to tear down and move
two blocks east, to make room
for the new casino.

this is the same neighborhood where,
two summers ago, a woman was taken
from her car and raped for eight hours.

but maybe that was a dream, too—
Google tells me nothing
when i go to look up the case facts.

still, i won’t jog this way alone.
still, the angel looks like it’s dying.

the shadows gather there strange:
dark pockets in darker sleeves.
the lights in the maple
must clink shrill in the wind.

white lights, mostly, with wings draped red.
you can’t see the stars behind for the highway,
and that is sadder than anything.

Author’s Note

The majority of the poems in this selection came from Tupelo Press’s 30/30 Project last February, a daily writing sprint with poems due at midnight to be posted the next day. I wanted to really dedicate a chunk of space time for putting pen to paper, not something easily found when each day generally has a very different set of demands. Most every poem was crafted late at night, just under the 12am deadline. My rationale was that ideally this would prompt more mindfulness during the day (as Ginsberg said, poets are people who notice what they notice, after all), generating at least a starting point, an image, a line, something—which it did, sometimes—but as often as not I was stuck yawning at the blink of the cursor over a blank page. What happened next I found even curiouser, though it doesn’t sound surprising in retrospect. When left with no place to start, my mind reached for what was closest. Sometimes literally: the dead yellow jacket chased by the cat across the office floor; the sirens outside the window. And sometimes subconsciously, tensions I didn’t even acknowledge in the course of the working day. Like not having a child. Like my on/off love affair with mental unhealth; like memories of patients from my med school days. Things that haunt the spaces between the synapses, perhaps, but nevertheless are always with us.

The poems above reflect a little of each of those motivations. Dehiscence came up in conversation with a friend as such a medically transformative word that I decided on the spot it need to be the day’s poem. Traveling west down Robin Hood Road, you can still see the angel from “Blurred edges”—apparently the homeowners put it up every year. “Close to home,” written the day before “Dehiscence,” was one of those nights where it was just me and the moonlit computer screen.

The month as a whole was exhausting and exhilarating—I came out with more “workable” poems than I’ve ever done in such a short stretch… and I’m thrilled that a handful found their way here.

The exhilaration ultimately outweighed the exhaustion, at least in hindsight. Currently, I’m recovering from a second stint with Tupelo, a part of the January 2022 30/30 cohort.

Joanna Lee is the author of Dissections (2017), a co-editor of the anthology Lingering in the Margins (2019), and founder of the Richmond, Virginia community River City Poets. Her work has been published in Rattle, Fourth River, Driftwood and elsewhere, and has been nominated for both a Pushcart and multiple Best of the Net prizes. Having earned her MD from the Medical College of Virginia and a Master’s in neuroscience from William & Mary, she currently co-owns (with her husband, John) south-of-the-river coffeeshop and all-day breakfast joint Café Zata. They live in Richmond’s Northside with new kitten Karma.