top of page


Cyrée Jarelle Johnson


the blue whale at the museum’s lonely

missing all her titan kin
face of plaster, veins of tin

she bellows her trauma in effigy


when I was a child on the lips of the woods
preachers lectured on Jonah’s hubris
and I’d think I don’t need to know this

I just wanted to live in the sea. no good


was religion, I’d set my inner visions
on the brooks and the rivers
that drained in the sea -- a giver

who held us imprisoned, but diluted their poisons


with conch shells and salt memory. in play-doh and felt
I’d sculpt blue whale and narwhal, so deeply I felt
I belonged to the sea.


“O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.” — Toni Morrison, Sula


Your heel, a shiv slicing open the hide

of some heedless, anonymous creature

               creeping beneath the El’s wide lip shimmer,

               circumspect to the stomp of your danger.


Six blocks of rank asphalt & ruined sidewalk

beyond the splintered door jamb you shot out

               screamer, big-talker, inevitable

               drifter; wind and tight handfuls of glitter.


Thrusted among Philadelphia’s blood

stained Japanese Maples, ridged Watchtowers

               — their covers splatter-painted, rain tie-dyed.

               You showed your nipples at my old home club

                              ATLANTIS: THE HIDDEN TREASURE, awash

                              with resign. What you want, you’ll never find.


Just resign. What you want, you’ll never find.

Non-profit motivation, still employed

               (Not in denuded halls I once haunted,

               but in carpeted cubical devoid


of lucrative potential.) Skeptical

slash resentful of sheltered coworkers.

               I’d hear my call to the stage                                    DYNASTY

               LIKE-NO-OTHER! as I snoozed through meetings

                              snorted awake, afraid of defunct fees.


                              Together we were The Family (W)Rex.

               Every night, we staged our plays. Seven days

               a week. Your ass went on for forever,

my plush thighs broader still than dinner trays.

The Brocade Sling! The Vintage Ermine Muff!


One silk slingshot, one vintage ermine muff

four limp black wigs: real hair and plastic thread.

               You stashed vices in spider holes: codeine

               tabs, Xanax, and cash. You gathered toys spread


out on the floor into trash bags. My niece

barely had any before you arrived.

               Her uniform spotless, her blankets rags,

               a glowering, sullen streak in her eye


for which I don’t blame her. A child, scared.

She rages, mopes, and cries until she chokes

               opposite Auntcle as novice au-pair.

               Her mother elsewhere, swathed in Newport smoke

                              devoured by the slick beast that bore us.

                              On your leave, at first, I felt empowered.


On your leave, at first, I felt empowered

by my sole successful attempt to set

               boundaries. (I’d later have so much to grieve.)

               In the moment, I was spiteful. Contempt


tinted my view of you. More than old friends;

at sixteen, we were closer than sisters.

               Once we sprinted through Exit 10, Tercel

               sputtering towards some strained family scene.


                              Your gossamer Joyce Leslie dress was lewd

                              as you bent over the rosewood casket,

               to peer into the face. It looked like you.

               Zipped up in plastic...that’s it as we bumped

Jay-Z. You clipped your hair, served Amber Rose.

Will you stay awake as the illness grows?


Are you falling asleep? Just in repose?

Does your gown bag like white tees in 00s videos?

               Does the cocktail leave you gaunt and morose?

               Do you know of your fate? Is it sour?


I’m far away, but misting as you breathe.

Around me veins split, perineums tear.

               Infants twist inside their cozy pouches.

               Comrades shit as they bleed out in bathtubs.


                              You wane wan, drawn as you blanch in moonlight.

                              But you’ve beat the piss out better things

               with nerve enough to try you. O sick sage,

               I can’t protect you from what the lump brings

but I’d’ve stayed on for the ride and rubbed

your heels as the shiv sliced open your hide.


If you must be raped, may all your rapes
be short rapes. May there be some pleasant
sound or thought in the frozen cell you keep
inside yourself for retreat in such dire conditions.
When you are prostrate to the reality of your body
may you sleep awake until he is finished, until
you smell him step beyond the door frame
and hear the click of the door settling back
Into the blameless jamb: the lock, its key, its gear,
the wheel of your life losing momentum
and settling, finally, into its groove. May you retain
your sense of privacy. May you regain privacy quickly.
May you remember quiet. Quiet. Silent. No crashing
to never digest, to always remember. No, for you
softer even than a cat’s ear. For you, the clay taste
—rain through the window, the drip of the rain,
the distraction of some other part of the body
adding its key to the slow, low-wailing drag.
May you seek refuge in coming apart under
the pressure of the body like too-chewed gum.
May every fragment locate its escape route.
May it slip with a yawn at the tear of his hook.
May you glide along the blade of the truth: nothing
could take as long, or as much, as this took.

-from Slingshot selected by Sheila Fiona Black, Spring 2024 Guest Editor

Cyree Jarelle Johnson (he/him) is a poet and writer from Piscataway, NJ. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Yale Review, Granta, Poetry, and Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, among other publications. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University with support from Columbia University and the Davis Putter Scholarship Fund. WATCHNIGHT, his second collection of poetry won the 2023 James Laughlin Award. It will be published by Nightboat Books in February 2024. Development of the work was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. SLINGSHOT, his first collection of poetry, won a 2020 Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry, and is available now from Nightboat Books. Development of the work was supported by Astraea Foundation’s Global Arts Fund, Culture/Strike Climate Change and Environmental Justice Fellowship, and the Rewire News Disabled Writers Fellowship. He is a recipient of a 2023 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a 2020 Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from Poetry Foundation, and was the inaugural Brooklyn Public Library Poet-In-Residence. Find him on Twitter at @cyreejarelle 

bottom of page