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Melissa C. Johnson is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Focused Inquiry in the University College at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. She studied with James Dickey at the University of South Carolina, where she earned an M.F.A. and Ph.D. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming at BorderlandsWaccamawNELLEKakalakThe Connecticut ReviewFarmer's MarketThe Potomac ReviewThe Cortland Review, and other journals. Her chapbook—“Looking Twice at the World”—was a winner in the 2007 South Carolina Poetry Initiative Chapbook Contest and was published by Stepping Stones Press at the University of South Carolina in 2008.
Oyster
By Melissa C. Johnson


The oyster knows hardship,
has grown an armored shell
to survive the tides, resist
the mouths of the hungry,
exudes glue to keep close
to family, cement itself to ledges.

Eyeless, limbless, boneless, oyster
can’t see predators or run away, 
yet poses challenges beyond
the dangers of the bay—
an infinite resistance,
patient and prehistoric,

to the tools shaped 
by the ravenous, 
the curious, the merely
idle: stone, wood, bone, metal
to pry apart the box 
looking for the jewel

find the mucus-like blob
in sheens of cream and gray,
its sharp, salty tang, 
last-ditch effort to cling
with single foot—
all it has 

to navigate, to find the way
in a murky underwater world.
Yet foot is all it needs when
foot is joined to shell—
that razor-sharp cage 
more effective than 

any chastity belt 
or locked pantry 
at foiling the idle,
the curious, 
the easily frustrated,
the discouraged.

One often hears 
of the courage
of the first man 
to eat an oyster,
but more rage 
than courage must
have been there

to fight the battle 
against hideous shell
pulled from a body
full of soft-sided fishes; 
to risk cuts, scrapes, 
to prise the hinge,

open the lid, 
scrape the weeping 
morsel from the moonlight
gleaming interior,
unhinge the mouth 
and slide it in. 

Perhaps a smoker
trying to quit
or a lover doing likewise—
pleased to find
that salty funk,
that lubricated wink. 

To see the thing laid bare
in all its ugly essence
and to choke it down.