Poetry by Allan Johnston

Topanga Fossil Bed

Up canyon, at a right

bend of road, the cut side

of a hill is spilling out. 

Consider it:


across asphalt, old mud,

rock so soft fingers snap it. 

It’s a Miocene formation. 

For some reason — maybe a pocket


of depression – it stopped here. 

These are shells.  Look at them. 

They could grace restaurant plates,

be products of factories –


clams and turritella,

ornate ovals and sea spikes,

pebble-smooth, each grained

like the other.  Turritella,


spiral snail shells

seem magic dinosaur teeth

to the child, soft brown

and orange, a scent of canyons


caught in them.  This is an alphabet

of a past.  Slowly fossils

have started cascading

on the road cut through this canyon


during the Depression.

Gradually they are moving

away from cliff and hill

once again toward the sea,


tumbling to join fine silts

and younger cousins.






I’ve got time on my hands

It moves around like a small animal

It creeps into cracks where knuckles have played

against the wall — “knuckled in” as they say

with a watch on the Rhein or any river

we might call life


We twist its knob

to keep it going

but it does so anyway

It refuses to be

a Mobius strip


Time is on my side


having crawled up my arm

and twisted to the left

in the general direction

the nerve shock

from a heart attack takes

when it announces itself to the angels


By the electric pulse it repeatedly sends

to the constellations time announces

itself an idiot

though It is also

what teaches all

the waking of things


It is fortuitous

it fills the circuitry in the head

It wants to escape but that old skull

just keeps on rolling along to the tune

of “Old Man River” and other greatest hits

time itself being

the greatest hit



Cracked Crab: For the Union

. November 4, 2008



Nearly sixty, the first time I ate

crab legs in the shell. 

They gave me tools—

a cross of spoon and toothpick,

pliers with nutcracker surfaces. 


I had no skill, orange crab legs

slipped from hands like slimy twigs. 

Anyway, the food was bad—

greasy vegetables, rewarmed fries;


not the place to celebrate,

despite the large and radiant fish

swimming beneath fluorescent lights

through the branching corals. 


We’d walked

in the November

evening under

multicolored trees,

away from the polling place

to celebrate the vote we’d cast,


and as we ate

watched on the screens

as the states

flicked on and off,

bright as fish,

red, then blue,

as the tense, lovely night


stalled, then grew,

and Grant Park filled. 

A first time for crab,

a night of firsts.

I recalled

the parking-lot aquarium


described in the poem by Robert Lowell

about the Boston Commons monument

to Colonel Shaw and his men

and watched the blessèd bubble break.


                   The Point

      After a poem by James Wright



“How is the moment to remember

      bound to the touch that was craved so long?

What will be done with the dying ember?”

      — This is the point of song.

“Will you be kind to all who listen

      though other music fills their ears?

Will you embrace the right compassion?”

      — This is the point of fears.


“One does not get the gist in direction

      of this singing.  Will you exact

elaborations in the confession?”

      — This is the point of fact.


“All in all, then, to confuse us

      with revelation, do you devise

a tone, tremble, or touch to use us?”

      — This is the point of lies.

Poetry By Allan Johnston

Allan Johnston earned his M.A. in Creative Writing and his Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Davis.  His poems have appeared in Poetry, Poetry East, Rattle, Rhino, and other journals.  He is the author of two full-length poetry collections (Tasks of Survival, 1996; In a Window, 2018) and three chapbooks (Northport, Departures, and Contingencies)

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