Poetry from John Tustin


Life is only life 
If it is filled with wars
And battles always within these wars.

The battle to get your children to do what they’re told.
The battle to overcome your lovesickness and your grief.
The battle of the hungry bird and the wily worm. 
The battle of the space between the unnecessary noise and the uncomfortable quiet.

Life is only life
If every moment is a struggle inside your mind
Between sanity and letting go. 

The battle to wake up every morning
With the fist doubling in your stomach
And the hammers pounding out S.O.S. on both temples –
A battle daily fought and daily won until the morning you lose the war

Like we all must, in some way, lose the war
In the final place where the space narrows,
The lights dim, the music fades to distant silence.


I have found my freedom of speech
In slipping through the bars
Of the constriction of my words
To tell you plainly that I see God
In a bubble that floats in a dish
Full of rain that sits unnoticed
On the backsteps of a house
Where nobody any longer lives
And at the same time tell you that
I know for certain there is no God.

That time of night
that’s also morning
when the time moves so slowly
and you ponder all of it.
You feel all of the ground overturning.
A religious time.
Contemplative time.
Holy time.

She calls you
and she’s just had surgery
and she was afraid 
lying there waiting for the knife
that she would never wake up,
never see you again;
never tell you that even when she hated you,
she still loved you.
She calls you in the depth
of the night that is morning.
Holy time.
Halfway between the death and birth
of the sun.

The words come to you
and they feel like
they belong to someone else;
that you are just a transcriber,
a monk with his quill and parchment
squinting in the candlelight
but you are more than that.
The words are yours 
but they’re also not
and, years later
you tell that story
about the time she called you up
right out of the blue
and told you that she loved you
even when she hated you
and please could you tell her
that you always loved her, too?
And you did
so you tell her.

It’s only that time 
during the mass sleeping
in your part of the world,
the thickness of everything thinned,
that you can bring yourself
to tell such stories
that you usually can’t 
even bring yourself to remember.
The time when the sun is 
farthest from you
and the moon feels her power 
to push and pull you
just before her influence fades again.
A religious time.
Contemplative time.
A holy time
when something unquantifiable 
enters you
and brings words
that you didn’t know resided inside you
right out into the world
from your hands.

The holy time
when your wounds open
and it helps you convalesce.

We were visiting my wife’s brother Saddiq in North Carolina:
My wife, my three-year-old son Johnny, baby Sara and me.
Her brother was divorced and remarried.
His two daughters from his first wife were also staying with him that weekend.
My wife and her brother were from Pakistan although their father was born in a part of India
That is now Bangladesh. 
Saddiq’s ex-wife was a Sikh from India. 
I’m just a white American mutt.

Saddiq had two daughters and no sons
And it became obvious having a son was important to him
Because he paid more attention to my son that weekend than to his own daughters.
His older daughter was about twelve and right away she began to confide in me.
I don’t know why.
She told me about how she hated her “wicked stepmother”
And that she considered herself to be ugly.
I told her to look in the mirror and see how much she looked like her mother,
Which was true.
“Is your mother ugly, Jia? 
No, she’s beautiful. So are you.”
I also told her that being a stepmother was not an easy thing
And to be patient and understanding of that.

Later on she declared, 
“I know why you like Sara more than you like Johnny.”
She had made that assumption because, 
Seeing how much attention my son was getting from Saddiq,
I was giving my daughter more attention than usual so she wouldn’t be upset.
“Well, first of all, Jia, that’s not true
But I would like to know why you think I like Sara more.”
“It’s because Sara’s skin is lighter and Johnny’s is darker.”
With that, my son walks up to us.
He had heard what Jia said about skin color and merely responded, “I’m brown!”
As a declarative statement of fact – without any emotion whatsoever.
Then he went back to watching SpongeBob. 

“Jia, there is something in the skin called melanin
And it helps to decide how dark your skin is. 
Johnny has more melanin in his skin than Sara. That’s all.
How silly would it be to like one person more than another based on something like that?
They have no say in how much or little melanin they have.
They have no control over it. 
I’m too smart to like or dislike someone over something so trivial.
I’m sure you are, too.
I would never even think to like or judge someone over it.”
“Well, how many more melanins does Johnny have?” she asked.
“I don’t know, dear. I don’t know how much more melanin he has.
It’s not really important. 
It’s who he is in his heart that’s important. 
That and how he treats himself and others.”

She said she understood
And I really think she did.
I’m long since divorced and I haven’t seen Saddiq or his family in years.
Such is life.
If you ever read this, Jia,
I hope you’re doing well
And you still understand what I told you
Because too many people never will. 

We held onto one another
Until the money ran out.
I spent it on lottery tickets,
You on wine.
I spent it on lawyers and looseleaf,
You on bandages
And bottles of iodine.

We may not have money, honey,
But we got rain.

The stars blind against the sun,
Too far away to matter.
Time as thin as a razor blade,
As short as its handle.

You spent your money on worrying.
I spent my money on the horses.
You spent it on transportation 
To always the same lifeless destination
Where your sister and your mother led you
As I pitched pennies in the alley,
Trying to strike it rich with the other poets
And losers.

We may not have money, honey,
But we got rain.

We loved one another
As long as the moon allowed us,
Peeking in through the blinds
To see our naked bodies
So helplessly ensnared.
To see our naked everything.
The moon could not hide us well enough
Or illuminate us beyond our own walls.
The moon is gone now, along with the money.

I made for you clothes to wear.
You made the salve that calmed the scars
That lay long and razed along my back.
I see you in my clothes now
As I run my fingers along
My whiplash scars
Just as you used to do.

My crumpled words, 
Your secret photographs,
All smoldering in an ashtray
In a room we once occupied
A room now half-occupied.
The smell is bitter
Like burning leaves with kerosene.

We may not have money, honey
But we got rain.
I close my eyes and listen to it
Outside, just beyond my thoughts
That concentrate on your heart
That is stained red
With iodine.
There is nothing to do, the money is gone.

You close your eyes in your Home for the Indigent
And I sit in mine,
Both huddled alone,
Both waiting for the things 
That never arrive.
Knowing they will never arrive
But hoping.
I close my eyes,
You close yours,
Listening to the same rain
That falls as red
And bright
As iodine.

We ain’t got money, honey…

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009. fritzware.com/johntustinpoetry contains links to his published poetry online.