The Ballad of Virgil Johnson

Virgil Johnson is a mythology. His feet,
rooted in the mountain soil, are sea-faring anchors
with lost connections to the sea.
The skin of his elbows is all barnacles and polyps.
His knees are gruff, stupid boulders.
His nose is something you could ski off,
formidable and ridiculous. His hair, red and flowing,
waves like the wildest lion’s mane.
His shoulders could pull a train across Colorado.
His wrists have the strength of fleeing snakes.
And his fiddle. See how it eats. See how his fingers
crawl and dance across the stubborn tightropes of the strings
like lizards on leaves. See how the bow in the gnarled tree of his right hand
draws all calm and cool—rosin clouds rising
from some gentle mountain storm.
The bow stays close to the bridge—the long strands
of horse hair pulling tiny tongues along a music
licking so fast and so small you’d need a microscope to see
or a bible or a roadmap or a guidebook to where the
harmonies grow inside. That’s where it happens.
That’s where the fiddling is. That’s where Virgil plays.
He’s got your tune under his fingers in that place you’ve got hidden so well
beneath the calluses and laundry and excuses and worn out shoes
and berry pies and books you meant to read but never did and butter candies
and ways to trick your mother out of coming for Christmas and pot roasts
and letterboxes and photo reels you keep deep inside yourself.
Just give him time enough to cycle through,
time for his toes to grab the earth
and the sound to find its hollow.

You’re both at the crossroads. Bring cash. Bring whiskey.
Tell your dog you’ll be gone for a while. Tell no one.
Virgil Stays a While in Boise City, a.k.a. “No Man’s Land”

Dust films on what’s left of the bread.
Dust falls from his ears when the rooster crows.
Dust knows to hide in his shoes while he sleeps,
to fill the air with its tiny stars drifting toward homes.
Dust becomes an ornery friend who can’t stop telling stories.
Dust even climbs the sides of the chicken coop
the Gilstraps let him stay in. Virgil thinks maybe
it’s a pile of spies. Dust sparkles sometimes.
It’s made of gathered minerals and broken-off bits
of everything that’s lived and died in the land
—dinosaurs, wheat, corn, and children’s shoes.
Dust becomes a refrain the people can’t shake.
Dust becomes an eraser, a miles-wide blast
scraping away the land they try so hard to remember,
the earth they hitched their wagons to.
Dust almost watches them.
Dust paints everything brown
so the world is a book with no colors.
Maybe brown is Time’s only crayon.
The dust is a kind of always
settling in the space between places.
Like the floorboards, the dishes, and the mind.
Dust makes everything dry and wind-worn.
Dust clings to things like an obsession,
a peculiar neediness that doesn’t know better,
that can’t be swept. Dust builds a tiny desert
on each of the beds, the table, the dresser,
the cloth Virgil’s fiddle sleeps in,
dust gathering in the curves.
There’s dust in the beginnings and the endings of every day,
dust where Virgil sets the bow on the strings
for the long draw that sends a few bars of hope into the brown.
~  ~  ~

Rebecca Macijeski holds a PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has been awarded artist residencies at The Ragdale Foundation, Art Farm Nebraska, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in NimrodThe Missouri Review, The Journal,Sycamore Review, Fairy Tale Review, Puerto del Sol, and many other places. She is a member of the creative writing faculty at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Visit her online at