“BEAUTIFUL IN A WAY THAT RETURNS”:
TWO BOOKS BY JONATHAN JOHNSON
Mastodon, 80% Complete,Carnegie Mellon P $17.95 80 pp.
In the Land We Imagined Ourselves, Carnegie Mellon P $15.95 88 pp.
Jonathon Johnson’s Mastodon, 80% Complete and In the Land We Imagined Ourselves are muscular and vibrant, masculine and celebratory, and it’s obligatory to review these books comprehensively, as they add to the rich poetry of the northwestern United States, often delighting in the vegetal fecundities of Theodore Roethke or the peopled nature of David Wagoner. However, these poems prove just as likely to adopt the lonely towns and vast rural expanses of Richard Hugo—and it’s this dichotomy, the vacillation between events of the outer world and aloneness, the universal and the peripheral, that paradoxically make these poems whole, original, and exquisite to witness.
Mastodon, 80% Complete
Johnson’s poems do not limit themselves to the styles and themes of his geographical and poetic forbears. This poetry is often full of narrators who celebrate the goings-on of the world, the richly textured events that make his lines strident and alive, whether inhabited by humans or not. Significantly, the narrators often acknowledge their separation from these events, openly cognizant of their isolation and death’s encroachment, as in “Unmarked Stop in Front of Westmond General Store, Westmond, Idaho”:
I have never looked here from above,
from the few squared fields of long cleared woods
on the mountain behind this little store. No,
I only look out, or up, afraid—despite
Here, Johnson blends motifs of death and fecundity:
Once, pages of sunlight fell across bawling sheep
in the hollows of the Vandersloot barn,
and the sheer head rattled away,
nicking bloody an occasional teat or vulva
beneath a stack of bodiless fleeces
caked in gold lanolin, blood and shit.
This is a narrator revivified: Acknowledging death’s unavoidability, he finds rejuvenation, recognizing nature’s “unrepentant and pure” cycles.
In “Red like Rust,” the narrator opens with the human world and explores the idea of signals:
One example of communication
is when truckers flick their lights off and on
so passing truckers know it’s safe to slide
back into the right lane.
Slyly prosaic, Johnson immediately shifts into the lyrically metaphysical, employing a gentle didacticism, as he shows us how to signal ourselves, to “[s]tand / / in Dakota fields, watching from the dark. / Stir your fire for the lift and swirl of sparks.” And though “[t]ime is an abundant commodity / when considered collectively,” our lives are “fuel / for the blaze all names become.” One must depend on the natural world to reinforce the significance of our lives, for sometimes people aren’t enough: “Don’t count on her. But here, count on here.”
Johnson is the rare writer, as his poems reflect a genuinely joyful disposition in a vibrant yet sparse landscape, a dual celebration of people and place. The poems find residual delight even in moments of poignant contemplation, exploring the cold certainty of mortality. But Johnson has populated his poems with much more to rejoice—the rich consistency of a man deeply observant, making much of his time, no matter how little he has been granted. He is the far-flung gazer, his distance from his human subjects compelling—perhaps even essential for—his inventive vision. Satisfyingly, he continues to record and elucidate—perhaps even superiorly—in his follow-up collection.
In the Land We Imagine Ourselves
Johnson’s vision matures in In the Land We Imagine Ourselves, his writing equal parts concise and dithyrambic, short-lined and sprawling. All lines, no matter how reserved or long reaching, shimmer and surprise. As he admirably puts it in “The Big Drop Is the Only Way Home,” “[t]o the not unending narration of what’s happened / around me I add another aurora borealis.” Indeed, in the poem “Please,” the speaker’s acquiescent tone strikes tender and inevitable:
If I arrive at the gate, spent pen
in my shirt pocket, hands full of leaves
to return, the park will take me back,
no questions asked. So the park’s existence
is a little like you living on.
A conflation of memory and place, the speaker anticipates an epiphanic moment honed to a specific day in the future, wherein “February’s dry twinkling cold red / radio towered horizon it waits.” Simultaneously plangent and sanguine, this poem suggests that the lost can be summoned through the conduit of shared things—of nature and otherwise.
The poem “Snow Moving Like Fire,” Johnson at his most minimal, paints a scene in a blossoming cluster of images, reminding one of Gary Snyder or Tu Fu:
Over fir boughs
of mountain crest
blowing a wave
over moon until moon
is no guide and no god
and the spruce
are directionless arrows
obliterated and flaring
to the canyon . . .
Breathless and burly, the poem foregoes end-stopped lines completely and celebrates the small—“blood / in the bull moose’s / urine stain on old snow,” “glacial / striations and larkspur”—as well as the looming and gargantuan, the “cloud swirl” and “drifts of morning.” Fast-paced, violent, the poem celebrates the causal relationships and harsh conditions of a winter in which the narrator gazes, supplicatory and solemn as he “stare[s] / snug and certain / into the end / of what every one / of us will see.”
The most interesting of poems in this collection include “The Word ‘Curl’”—a humorous and beautiful celebration of the peripheral, the brain’s tendency to retain “cargo” in the “old vessel” of life. In this piece, the narrator fixates on
Art Garfunkel’s hair,
so that now, amid the billions of possible associations—
woodshavings, tapeworms, old fingers, and speaker wire—
we’ve got Garfunkel, above and behind Simon
on the cover of Bridge Over Troubled Water,
hair rising like a single, boiling thunderhead. . .
The narrator likens Garfunkel’s dynamic locks to a student’s, joyful that the memory is triggered by the current moment, “beautiful in a way that returns.”
Indeed, it is Johnson’s ability to surprise and enchant, to variegate his works so that the reader is never tired or deflated. Johnson consistently engages the full gamut of emotional resonances—always muscular and vivid—so that readers exit his pages changed, fully aware of a life well-loved, fully awakened to new celebrations of our shared world.