Melissa C. Johnson

Cancer Voodoo

Today I ran three miles
eschewed sugar, white flour,
soda, nicotine, dwelling
on the empty glass
with the crack that will
never hold water
and may cut the hand
which reaches for it
or tear the trash bag
and shatter on the floor
small shards impossible
to find and gather.

When I was eleven,
my grandmother began
eating almonds by the handful
believing cyanide would kill
oat cell carcinoma
metastasized to the brain.

I lost her in a haze of drugs and meds
long before the small body
in the hospital bed, the sleeping
stranger in the casket—
then dreamed for years
she hadn’t really died.

She was hiding from me—
always just in the next room
strangely silent.

My grandmother loved my rain dance,
swore it worked every time,
even thought I’d learned it from spaghetti westerns
actors in brown face, a mythology as suspect
as my grandmother’s family stories including—
as they did—Indian princesses, both the Hatfields
and the McCoys, Benedict Arnold, and Buffalo Bill Cody.

She believed in reincarnation, was convinced
I’d lived before in a teepee on some plain
or in the mountains of North Carolina we settled
every summer, where Indians sold plastic dolls
made in China, beaded buckskin, headdresses,
then retired after work to sagging trailer parks,
while we gathered round the table with the view.

We didn’t pray, at least not that side of the family,
but meditated, tried out ESP, looked for auras.
No matter how I danced, no matter how many
almonds she ate, all those cigarettes killed her
as true as any Hollywood massacre.

Mama smoked one last cigarette, then hid
her liberty bell ashtray and the pack
before she walked into the dark pond,
rolled, floated, couldn’t stay under,
climbed the hill home defeated.

Under her bed: hundreds of Ellery Queens,
six pairs of reading glasses, a seventh in pieces,
two bags of stale chips, twenty-two expired
prescriptions, five handfuls of individual
cough lozenges, four bottles of aspirin,
dozens of refrigerator magnets.

She began to worry what would happen
to us without her there, to tell us how
we went or could go wrong, to take the blame
for the death coming, for failing drowning
to chant hospice and still go to treatment,
to sneak a smoke while feeding the chickens.

I never asked about the magnets.
They were scattered pell-mell.
No pyramid or pentagram,
no metal to adhere to, too weak to shape a field—
to attract or repel anything.


An earlier version of Part IV was published as "Cancer Voodoo II" in Fall Lines: A Literary Convergence, Muddy Ford Press



Mama’s Hair

Heavy, stick-straight, black as coal,
Mama’s hair could be pulled
over the headrest as she drove,
gathered and stroked in the back seat.

When she cut it, I thought
it was my fault, maybe she told me so.
Every year she went shorter.
It never passed her nape again.

The last time she reached out to me,
she mimed clipping my curls with scissored
fingers, her mouth determined
as I leaned to lift her back to bed.


Previously published in NELLE



Melissa C. Johnson recently relocated from Richmond VA to State College PA where she serves as Associate Vice President and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education at The Pennsylvania State University. She earned a BA in English and Fine Arts from the College of Charleston, and an MFA in poetry and a Ph.D. in twentieth-century British Literature and Women’s Studies from the University of South Carolina. Her first chapbook, Looking Twice at the World, was published by Stepping Stones Press and the South Carolina Poetry Initiative. Her work has been published at NELLE, Waccamaw, Borderlands, The Cortland Review, The Northern Virginia Review, and elsewhere. In 2016, she was a contributor at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.