Rich, compelling lyric poetry that bores beneath the decorum of civilization, revealing the elementally human beneath.
Few writers are able to use juxtaposition and irony as frequently and consistently and with still-startling results as Johnson does in this penetrating debut. Like his most obvious, almost overshadowing, influence, James Dickey, Johnson accomplishes this through meticulously rendered detail, a knack for subjecting his characters to psychologically trying situations and an evocative sensuality that usually prefigures loss. Most of his major themes and techniques appear in the opening poem, in which the child narrator describes with disarmingly counterintuitive, yet accurate, metaphors the inexorable rise of floodwaters: “a puddle that grew wide on the kitchen floor then / covered it, absorbing the hall and climbing, / as an old man would, or a toddler, the steps.” Beset by diluvial apocalypse and the ceaseless cacophony of “the yipping, frantic dog,” Mamma frets instead over social obligation: “My god, Gardiner, the violin. We left Phoebe’s violin. / You have to go get it, Gardiner. It’s a rental.” Under such pressures, the father reacts instinctually and violently, “raising the window, / the dog struggling in his hands, squeaking and gnashing at him” before “flinging the dog out”—a shockingly vicious move that nevertheless re-establishes calmness. Most of the remaining poems play on variations of these same themes, whether the context is a pas de deux between a rattlesnake and the startled hunter who decapitates him, then weeps, or the young spectator who can’t bear to watch the eroticized sawing-in-half of the magician’s assistant. Whoever they are—man, woman, child, Shakespearean character or Audubon’s gifted but overlooked assistant—Johnson’s narrators are insightful, quietly desperate, honest and driven by wild appetites. For instance, in an appealing panegyric to cigarettes, one narrator concludes, “I’m no more addicted than a word to its meaning. / Saying you’re addicted makes it sound like / you don’t want one. / But I do. / I want every one. / Every one I can get.” Johnson’s poems always sound as if they’re telling the truths that we can’t usually bring ourselves to admit. Ultimately, it is both high praise and mild criticism to note how strong the Dickey influence is here, for in the best of these poems, Johnson rises to such heights, but his own distinct voice never fully emerges. Even so, this is one debut not to be missed.
Tender yet jarring, cerebral yet visceral.