Carolyn Joyner

Five Poems by Carolyn Joyner

Sonnet for Gordon Parks

He says he’s lived in so many different skins,
he can’t be claimed by any one. Attempts
to keep him trapped inside himself all failed—
he danced the lyric of Olatunji’s drum,

drank deep the cool of Blue Nile waters, then launched
those proud, undaunted journeys into “every
tool shop of his mind.” The sixties’ riots came.
When asked why this, he simply said, “I’ll show you.”

And so he did, with photographs and oils,
journalism and concertos. The Learning Tree
and Shaft. Poetry. This man—a well of all the arts,
of making beauty—his patron goddesses,

long-searching, devotion to his restlessness.
It all started with a camera someone had pawned.


How the Dead Come Back

Inspired by Natasha Trethewey

Like breath sliding mouth open,
the gasp it forces;

as balm inside hurt’s raging wild,
the image you see
when all goes quiet behind
your eyes; as wind’s

brawny gust on a tranquil day,
standing bedroom sheers straight out,
holding them there, defying gravity’s
pull until they make
mystical entry;
as slashes of

pure light parting cumuli’s
heavy dark, just enough to warm cheek,
throat, before leaving
the doorway, signaling balloon-sent messages
were received;

as life’s window, the shaping
and coloring of its panes—
the dead who don’t stay dead,
let their seeing be yours,

the face looking back at you.



after Marianne Moore

the fog of marigold mist
as if it were a window shade, rides
the winged horse of song, or maybe death, strides
the wide-stepped march of love, the fury in

swift rush
to surrender. When she chooses to appear,
I tilt my head, open my ear
to absorb her vibrant resonance or

she’ll take herself
some other place, play hide-and-seek, hard to get,
and then I can’t repose in sacred waters, let
her music’s whisper transform thoughts she

her lyre
sound out their pattern, lure me to find
them voice. I bathe her in ambrosia, get her to unwind
so that tomorrow and the day after, she will pre-

set me to sail
toward figurative imagery. At times, she can be
a wrong-headed woman, ignoring my plea
to leave her icy caverns, bring her creative

to deepen the insight
I long to have. No, her visits are not
on cue. She rolls in on her chariot
only when my attention’s totally

and I combat
distractions. Her jealousy rides high in wild,
tempestuous skies and I refuse to rile
it up. I charm her with my own bush magic instead,
ensure this coy mistress is always visited.

Brandon D. Johnson, “Petworth Library Puddle,” photograph, 2019.

The Now of Gwendolyn Brooks

Inspired by Dolores Kendrick

Like a full moon in winter,
her light comes inside,
gives breath to voice
speaking behind plain-folk
eyes, to song humming
sway at their core.

Long-limbed words with big souls—
a collective embrace, armoring.
There’s no looking up or down
on her charted journey, just
the challenge of being human,
assorting humanness. 

Soon I’ll be done wid the troubles
of the world, soon…

We dance, stride, gallop the idiom,
rhythmic riffs resonant in portraits
of young men dangling hope
by the foot (but they cool, real cool),
the bourgeois raining condescension
on the poor, that old yellow pair
sharing broken-dreamed devotion.

She seats us in kitchenette buildings,
gives us a whiff of hallway’s over-ripened
garbage after strutting our stuff down
Bronzeville streets with Satin-legs Smith.
We neighbor with a young girl named
Annie Allen, grow into adulthood with her.

Black urban poor skin slips on easily,
reshapes truths that speak of our own, reach
into modernity’s chest, illuminate it,
like a full moon in winter.



It’s him again, threading his way
through the festival crowd
on the other side of the street, styling
a purple crewneck with Muhammed Ali
silkscreened in white across his chest.
He stops midblock to survey the scene,
bobs his head to bass line’s thump
booming from stage 4 at street’s end.
I stand where he can see me, a megawatt
grin almost a laugh, anticipating the latest
funny story, wait for him to acknowledge
the mother whose house he always
stops by whenever he’s this close.
He starts to cross the street, walk toward
me. Midway, he vanishes.

Two weeks ago, I spotted him driving
down Georgia Avenue—tried to flag
him, but he didn’t notice the flailing
arms, blue dress he gave me for my
birthday flapping the breeze. At night,
my longing takes shape, hangs over
my bed, awakens me just enough
to remind me all over again that he’s gone.
I want him back.

Finally, I box his things, give them away.
Put his authentic leather and woolen “Redskins”
jacket up for sale. He doesn’t know I moved
from the house he called home, left his footsteps’
echo on the stairs, his form peeling away
from shadows, walking toward me.



Carolyn Joyner has been featured in Pleiades, Obsidian, Amistad, Mass Ave Review, and the anthologies Gathering Ground, Revise the Psalm, 360˚A Revolution of Black Poets, and Beyond the Frontier. She has a Master of Arts degree in creative writing from The Johns Hopkins University, is a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Cave Canem fellow, and has been awarded two Artist Fellowship grants from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. She lives in Washington, DC. To read more of her work: 2 Poems, It's Your Mug Anniversary Issue, Spring 2009