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                      For Robert Penn Warren

Reckless and white as a flashlight beam cast
into some dark corner, the moon
insists on the deeper blackness

surrounding it. Perhaps it wishes
to be a woman or a window, 
cushioning everything, full of itself

for the moment, yet frightened, like any egotist.
But still the stars patiently insist
on their presence, pinholes to nothingness. 

When else would I walk on such a night in the world? 

Half answers suggest themselves. 
The body consumes and wanes, collapses. 
We get to watch how everyone
dies who dies before us,
how birds rest. 

And yet while night solidifies, 
we can continue our discussion
in our effort to open the gift of the world, 
our hope to find years
in this box we tear apart. 

Birds do not count in our calibration. 
They crack time randomly, as if it were seeds. 
With sudden unaccountability
they start up and disappear. 

And yet, in some way all of this
is beside the point, for what can we do
except continue our conversation, 
and what would we gain if we disappeared? 

They tell us that this is so. 

Do you have any songs from your childhood
you still use to sing yourself to sleep? 

Being, mind, ego: the moon loves itself
in cloud shimmers, dancing as if it had pulled
a scant nightie off a laundry line
to clown with. 

We can only walk while there is light.

Permission granted by the author.
Source: Poetry (Poetry)

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This poem originally appeared in the March 1999 issue of Poetry magazine

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  • Allan Johnston earned his MA in creative writing and his PhD in English from the University of California, Davis. His poems have appeared in over 60 journals, including Poetry, Poetry East, Rattle, and Rhino. He is the author of one full-length poetry collection (Tasks of Survival, 1996) and two chapbooks (Northport, 2010; Departures, 2013). He has received an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nomination (2009), and First Prize in Poetry in the Outrider Press Literary Anthology competition (2010). Originally from California, Johnston now teaches writing and literature at Columbia College and DePaul University in Chicago. He serves as a reader for Word River and for the Illinois Emerging Poets competition, and he is an editor for the Journal for the Philosophical Study of Education. His scholarly articles have appeared in Twentieth Century Literature, College Literature, and several other journals.

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