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A Close Shave

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From Baden, or what’s left of it,
pursue a long, smooth curve of road
that skirts the northern flood wall
to parallel a palisade
of channel markers sunk in earth,
the folly of a cement works.
Its blank silos overlook
a pit of argillaceous shale,
the fine and fossilized remains
of bivalves, sponges, spines of shark,
quarried and burnt with limestone charge
to alchemize a binder of brick
and the city’s shallow, brittle crust.

Around a bend, the riverbed
swings wide to open a fetch of field.
Shadows skim its mucky thaw
as juncos, whisked about by the wind
on courses neither fixed nor free,
give but a quick metallic chink.
Behind you, rain has wrapped the bluffs
and scumbled limbs of sycamores.
Ahead, each bend assumes the name
of a gaudy packet run aground,
or snagged and sunk, or blown to bits:
for one, the side-wheel Amazon,
pluperfect wheelhouse painted green,
that struck a honey-locust pike
still rooted deep in river mud
and tore its hull from stem to stern.
Down in minutes! Within the month
an island silted up behind.

A flock of luggage floated south,
remarked by those on Water Street
loafing before the trading post
and the barbershop of Madame Krull.
She can eternally be found
at work in her elaborate room
toujours prêt to clip and coif
or wield her razor with great skill
for those who favor her with their chins.
The scent of ginger tonic blends
with that of borscht, its acrid tang,
consumed behind a wooden screen
as Illinois grows dark. In this,
her second year since coming west.

Source: Poetry (May 2012)

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This poem originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

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A Close Shave

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  • Born in Canton, New York, Devin Johnston grew up in Winston-Salem and received his PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Far-Fetched (2015), Sources (2008), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Aversions (2004), and Telepathy (2001). His prose writing includes the critical study Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice (2002) and Creaturely and Other Essays (2009). A former poetry editor for the Chicago Review from 1995-2000, Johnston co-founded and co-edits Flood Editions with Michael O’Leary.

    A lyric poet influenced by Yeats, Johnston whittles the lines of his poems, compressing imagery that is at once allusive and immediate. “While his lexicon is rich and particular, Johnston's line is severe, unadorned, and keenly cut to measure out the subtle, counter-pointed music which so strongly marks these poems,” observes poet Forrest Gander of the poems in Telepathy.

    He lives in St. Louis and teaches at Saint Louis...

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