SD Poets You Should Know: Brandyn Johnson

Brandyn Johnson teaches at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, and he writes touching, understated poems about his family—he has several particular affecting poems about his brother in his chapbook in Four Quarters to a Section, published by the SDSPS in 2015. I particularly like this poem of his, from The Puritan:


When you picked me up early
from school, I thought I was in trouble
and I clung to the door handle
in the van.
I had never been fishing with you before.

We pulled off along a dirt road
and carefully cleared a path
through maples
to a spot you liked.

You explained the difference between
Rainbows and Browns while I hooked
unsuspecting worms: jabbing
the end through the head
or the tail
and popping it out
a few stripes down.
It’s about time you boys start
calling me dad, you said.

I lost my first bite, but the second
one stuck,
and I won the fight,
reeling him to the bank
where you grabbed him: my first catch.

God damn suckerfish,
this is a garbage fish.
You unhooked him and let me see him
—glistening and golden, blood
unspooling from his lip—

before smashing him still
on a flat rock.
You sent him somersaulting
into the dirt.

The speaker of this poem sets up the emotional stakes of the fishing trip with someone I assume is his stepfather or mother’s boyfriend (“It’s about time you…start / calling me dad”), someone who has never taken the speaker fishing before, and the speaker seems proud of his “first catch,” though we’re never told that. The speaker lets the story unfold without commentary, which lets the reader grieve with him as his prize, “somersaulting / into the dirt,” is destroyed by the pseudo-dad. I respond to that straightforward narrative, and I also love the precision with which the process of fishing is described: “I hooked / unsuspecting worms: jabbing / the end through the head … / and popping it out / a few stripes down.” We’re drawn into the scene because the speaker’s reactions are understood, not over-told, and that’s why I earlier called his poem “affecting”—for me, it’s impossible not to be drawn in.

Featured image taken by Hans Splinter under the creative commons license on Flickr. Post by Barbara Duffy.

Read about more South Dakota poets.

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