Four Poems by Janice Northerns

Bobbie’s Valediction


Valedictorian by default,

I knew I’d blow the speech: the honor

wasn’t mine. I wanted to talk about

Bobbie, not yet twelve months in the grave,

but found myself sleep-walking down a road

of “the first day of the rest of our lives,”

a generic blue graduation gown

swallowing my gold-tasseled lies.

I remember her birthday

was in February

and she was scared

sex might be messy

I remember my letter

waiting in her mailbox

the day she died, how

I confided the love bite

on my neck from a summer

crush, but said nothing

of his hand down my pants,

not wanting to leave her behind

Some days I dream of a do-over

for that speech and think what I’d say:

how on the June afternoon her chestnut

gelding threw her, she’d left a list of things

to do: clean room, apply for college

scholarships, polish boots. Or maybe I’d read

Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane,” his student’s

death so like Bobbie’s own.

I’d find my way to honor Bobbie, finally,

by standing — speechless — on the stage, dead air

recalling for us all how she saddled up

and rode through the practice pasture, horse

and girl fluid dancers making perfect turns,

until the horse stumbled, missed the jump,

and Bobbie skimmed the clouds, hair floating

out in ribbons, contrails slicing the sky.


A Texas Girl on Central Avenue

The plane touches down in Albuquerque

and we drive through the old part

of town where adobe is trimmed in pure

turquoise sky or rose-dusted

mesa, where great lobes of dark chiles

shine welcome.

Next morning, fresh

from Bible-Belt West Texas,

I walk down Central Avenue,

old Route 66, gawking at girls

with nose rings, loving it

when dark tattooed men whistle

and call after me, Hey, Babe!

Meandering through tourist shops

in search of Indian trinkets,

I hear a harmonica, some rich liquid

blues tune running quicksilver

down the street.

Around the corner, a street musician

and his girl sit against a wall,

wanting nothing more

than to play for me all day.

Too cheap to throw coins

their way, I window-shop,

walking back and forth

just to hear that sound.

Finally, I duck into a store,

choose earrings from Taiwan

for my little girl, deeming local

silver just too expensive.

Back in Texas, my daughter loves

the gaudy shine of dime-store trash,

never missing what I couldn’t buy:

that harmonica’s hard throb sliding

through me before it hit the street.


Letters from My Father

Periodically they arrived, scalding installments

in my complimentary subscription to dread.

Slitting open envelopes, I iced my heart

against scriptured advice, read slantwise

his scrawls, burying terror with squinted eyes.

Though my father never made it past

eighth-grade math, his calculus of sin

was immaculate, proofs underlined

on thin-skinned King James pages.

Even wadded up, sealed and shoved

behind my eyelids, unread, they steamed

themselves open in dreams. I knew

each epistle weighed me in the balance,

found me wanting. Knew his equation

for grace, buzzing along the x-y

axis of a flickering neon cross:

I must paper my body with inked

admonition, slide back into church

pew, let varnished hardness trance me

into dancing in the spirit, let glossolalia,

first poetry I ever spoke,

flood my throat, a feathered

messenger choking me as it clawed

its way free of caged teeth.



We believed in the supernatural,

angels and demons, even a ghost, though

only the one — a turbo-charged member

of the Trinity giving us a boost,

magical fruits — love, joy, peace, and so on.


I’d been told I should want it. I’d been told

I would like it. So one night at age 12

I got down on my knees and asked for it.

I guess I missed the warning: be careful

what you wish for. I begged for the secret

language, till empty as an open womb,

a torn hole, I floated above it all.

Looking down, I saw myself, a dripping

blister rubbed raw and glistening with the wet

tongue of the Holy Ghost shoved down my throat.


After teaching high school and college English for twenty years, Janice Northerns left academia last year to spend more time writing. Her first full-length poetry collection, Some Electric Hum, is forthcoming from Lamar University Literary Press. Awards include a Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts residency, a Sewanee Writers’ Conference scholarship, second place in Southwest Review’s 2017 Marr Poetry Contest, and the Robert S. Newton Creative Writing Award from Texas Tech University. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Laurel Review, Southwestern American Literature, descant, Cold Mountain Review, and elsewhere. A native Texan, she and her husband now live in southwest KansasRead more of her poetry at or follow her on Twitter @JaniceNortherns.