Johnny Horton

Johnny Horton

Born on a submarine base in New England and brought up beside the Great Lakes, Johnny Horton spends many summers in the Mediterranean World, acting as co-director in the University of Washington’s summer creative writing program in Rome. Johnny’s poems have recently been accepted by or appeared in Prairie Schooner, City Arts Magazine, Los Angeles Review, CutBank, Notre Dame Review, Indiana Review, Willow Springs, and Poetry Northwest. His work’s been anthologized in City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry (U of Iowa Press) and his book manuscript has recently been a finalist for the National Poetry Series.


Someday we’ll be taken with one another, impressed
like sailors on a voyage of discovery, coupling

rum rations with no idea of where we’re going, hoping
the most important epiphanies happen once

you’ve left the ones you love. Grief is what you feel
in waves. Fish tales are how we feed ourselves

on noble lies. I could be comforting, talk about myths,
like dolphins dropping mariners on the beach.

I could justify Columbus seeing mermaids in the manatees.
Pliny the Elder couldn’t bring himself to eat

the creatures of the deep. He believed his tears
improved his vision. Maybe crying helps people see

from someone else’s point of view. Maybe weepers
make the greatest liars. Every night, Columbus deceived

his crew, undercounting miles they’d gone from Spain.
My equation for staying up all night includes a nest

from which we navigate by stars. I need to hear
your voice. I need to touch your cheek while you’re posing

questions to the sky. In the scope between us, dawn
turns water pink. Maybe our devices make us think

there’s so much space between the future and communion
we’d better not act. Consider the Mediterranean

woodcock. With eyes that see 360 degrees,
it’s become the Isle of Capri’s perfect prey, slow movement

being a consequence of too much sight. I’d rather observe
the Venezuelan anablep, otherwise known

as the four-eyed fish, the pisces
that enjoys cumulonimbus and the bottom of the lake

in one continuous view. Look: It thrives on nothing but air
as it scans the surface for a mate. Don’t make me sing

“Love Boat,” auf Deutsch: Das Liebe Schiff
versprechen etwas für jedermann
. Our language survives

the promises we make. Our vessels carry us
up until the breaking point. One way you learn to swim

is by getting in over your head. Pliny the Elder
said people were the only animals to regret getting close, to act

like strangers on the day after they’d gone to bed. The truth
is, some dolphins love drowning sailors. Some

lovers feel current once they’ve come ashore, the sea
being what they can’t ignore. What we walk away from

we leave unexplored.


Words exist in the mouth not in books.
—Robert Frost

And yet, I find myself between the pages
of Gibbon’s Empire, once the sun has gone,
and fog has fallen on my city like a Goth
who found the local vintage. Tomorrow
is trouble. Tonight, I dance a forgotten pyrrhic,
the hyperactive youth blowing his flute
as I clear another hurdle, a sack of pozzolana
slung across my back. The woman I’ll fight for
tricks her auburn hair in golden locks
imported from the forests of the north.
We sat all night below the broken bridge,
tossing pebbles in the Tiber, naming our future
children after stars. We called a daughter
Cassandra, and swore to believe in everything
she said. We uttered vows against the past
and kept our love beneath the bridge.
How stars could cast their glitter on the eels
littering the embankment was a charm
for which we never found the words to speak. 


I’m thinking of Julius Caesar’s anxiety, his fitful sleep
once he turned 33, and he had nothing more to show
than governorship of Spain, unless you count the dream
in which he’d raped his mother, after which

he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, saw
his dagger, and thought he’d better off himself,
until he spoke with the augur, who said, by Jove!
he was destined to conquer his metaphorical mother.

I’m thinking that’s a good twist, considering Caesar
lived millennia before psychoanalysis, before Jung
invented the collective unconscious, that arena
we can visit nocturnally, where our dilemmas appear

dramatically, and we can choose our favorite persona,
once we’ve consulted the modern augur, who says
the more things change, etcetera, says, nightmares
are in our heads, projecting terror where Caesar took terra.


I was aping Mussolini in Piazza del Popolo
when the woman I fell for called me an asshole, not
uncalled for in Rome, the metropolis
responsible for romantics
like Berlusconi and the emperor Nero. Later that night, soccer
hooligans attacked the riot cops, the latter
lining up like imperial legions to face the Goths. This
was a dangerous backdrop
against which to fall in love. This
was a turning point
in which I embraced the Old World, became
an insufferable American
who would wear a Roma scarf, refuse all romance
except with Eurocentric types, lovers
you could only speak with
if you understood the films of Federico Fellini
as spoken in the voice of Marcello Mastroianni. I had forgotten
affectations like this
isolated men in the home of the brave, where playing
dress up was still okay
as long as you tricked yourself
out like a cowboy. Wearing the flag as a cape
does not concern me. I’d rather think of the Roman summer
when The World Cup went to Italy,
as if through memory
I could reclaim my love. Mussolini longed for broken statues
standing in isolated splendor, as reminders
of how great the Romans once were. Thomas Jefferson
lifted e pluribus unum from a Virgil poem, an ode to farming
in which the poet celebrates a paste
mortared from garden herbs, each taste
retaining it’s singularity
as synergy made flavor new. Ezra Pound
said Mussolini was Jefferson
without the tights. Without a history
full of false equivalencies
what would Shakespeare be? If we didn’t make mistakes
why would we practice art? Romeo and Juliet
fell in love for our enjoyment. To mend a broken heart
you have to work. Someone has to work
as a riot cop. Someone
has to wear a mask to stop himself
from bursting into tears. To fall you must
approach the edge. To stand
where Mark Anthony put Julius Caesar on display
like Exhibit A, the body of evidence
for which he cried, you don’t have to remember
Mussolini. You don’t have to remember
you lost your love to see the light
falling across an emperor made of stone, a disarmed Caesar
who has no feeling for phantom limbs, no sense
you stand by in ruins. 


The Sappho in the Neapolitan museum isn’t Sappho
but a rich girl from Pompeii, on display
where they keep Roman fantasies
like headstones: There’s the married couple

who wanted to be seen as equals; a tax man
who fancied himself the second coming
of Adonis. Here they have guides stretching the truth
like Odysseus, Vespas, passing piles of trash

that seem datable to the reign of Vespasian, and me
posing as a writer, not a ridiculous gesture,
given the anonymous woman in the fresco, holding
a stylus to her lips, keeping

her dead language alive. My eyes believe
what they see, and yet, I can’t believe this Sappho
witnessed a purgatory of ashes, dark ages
when she was out of sight, blind to the future

in which I happen upon her; check her out
like I was looking in a mirror; stand by her, thinking
I’d like to be discovered in the future, authentic
as the man I thought I was. 


Someday we’ll be like the Roman statues of Neptune and Triton
discovered in a sea cave. We’ll be like father and son, remembered
for making waves. Ancient sons became tragic figures. This is why
I prefer modern times to mythology. I’d rather blow my own horn
than listen to old songs. Pliny the Younger understood eternity
began with disaster; residents of Pompeii would be remembered.
Butterflies remember the worst sensations they felt as caterpillars.
Frogs must regret the metamorphosis that ended their schooling.
Otherwise, they wouldn’t sing such mournful songs. Otherwise
they wouldn’t make love for days. Maybe this is why mermaids
look more balanced than fish heads on human legs. Maybe this is why
we call the mackerel holy. Tiberius Caesar called the kids of Capri
little fishes. Pliny said a mushroom cloud looked like an umbrella
pine. Why should we make metaphors more than figures of speech?
Why believe in truth outside sensibility? One way to find the sacred
is not to look for it. In another model, you put on SCUBA gear; dive
in the Etruscan Sea; find yourself facing divinity. It doesn’t matter
if volcanoes change the ocean floor. We love getting in hot water. It
doesn’t matter if we get in over our heads. We have no use for water
wings. Odysseus listened to the Sirens so he could tell the story.
Anchises told Aeneas his mother was a goddess. Memory tells me
I could swim before I learned to walk. This is how I know my mother
loved the sea. I think of Homer on the tongue of Tiberius Caesar
when he couldn’t sleep, when he stayed awake thinking of children
who wanted him dead. Sometimes, the tomcat’s antipathy makes
The channel catfish develops muscle where his brain should be, eats
all the eggs he can as long as he guards the nest. Other fathers
must sacrifice to reproduce. The paper nautilus loses his penis
in the act of love. Anglerfish dissolve like sperm inside their mates.
Sophisticated men may forget their names in orgasmic states.
Maybe that’s why we call on Jesus Christ. Maybe that’s why fathers
teach their children how to fish. Pliny the Younger says his uncle
met a hail of burning pumice wearing nothing but a pillow
for a helmet. Maybe that’s why he looked like he was sleeping
when he was dead. If I knew the language that named Vesuvius
I would tell you what it meant to Tiberius Caesar. I would tell you
the difference between “inferno” and “hearth fire.” Sometimes
it’s better not to know your father.

Poetry in this post: © Johnny Horton
Published with the permission of Johnny Horton