Selvage by Donna Johnson is the kind of book that can easily get lost in a pile, and shouldn’t. It is very good, but not over-the-top brilliant. It is often original without being self-consciously so. And it reflects important lessons of workshop poetry—honest attention to particulars and a generous, open eye—without making the reader sigh, “Here we go again, another workshop poem.”
This is not to imply that creative writing classes always supply verse that tediously reflects the basics. It is to suggest that creative writing students need to absorb what they have been taught and then move on by going deeper into their own voices. Donna Johnson does this.
Johnson is a native of Tennessee, and many of her poems are small, stirring portraits of contemporary southern life, again without the hammering shout out I AM A WRITER FROM—-name a state or a region. Wherever we live we tend to forget the complexities of the rest of the country, and Selvage helps remind us not to do that. Are you taking this in, New York, California (where I live), North Dakota, Ohio? Be not afraid of locale when you write, and pay attention to what goes on beyond your borders, not just in surface sights, but in spaces and shadows between them, and in spaces and shadows in their back stories.
Borders is a useful word when engaging with Johnson’s poems, and not just because Selvage IS the perfect title. In “Photograph of My Father at Six” she says :
Even at six a bewildered sadness
tugs at the corner of his eyes.
He holds his spine overly erect,
as if it had been cured by creosote and sun,
hardened as the fence posts
that separated white town from Indian.
When words work together so inevitably, it is a pleasure to compare them to fine prose, just as it is a pleasure to compare fine prose to poetry. Reading Johnson I have found myself thinking of the unflinching prose of Bonnie Jo Campbell, whose native territory is Michigan but whose range is also far beyond the state. Like Campbell, when Johnson goes into a barn, she doesn’t get mucked up, as the final lines of “Tennessee Walker” illustrate so well :
The room smells overwintered, of souring hay.
The filly charges, smashing the stall.
They say she’s not fit to breed or show,
though when she’s not under saddle,
she still has the most spectacular gait.
There’s a sure-footedness about Johnson’s own gait that suits the turf she covers, and “From Stars” is a gently querulous example of this. It also avoids being trite, which is tricky when dealing with stars, and it does so with steady intelligence :
Like all the compositions in this collection, even the sodden lapse of “Subtext of the Latest Rejection,” with its just plain silly, “Dear Miss Poetess,” that’s been done countless times, the surfaces in Johnson’s lines are roomy, and each surface can be examined to reveal more connections, more border crossings and re-weavings. Her list of where she has published and who has helped her is respectable enough to reveal a standard avenue of persistence that she does not need to highlight in the poems themselves.
She and the object of her love draw close and come to “this park/ this park bench’’ where presumably they will spend as much time beyond their twenty years together as possible. But people, not even those without a home, do not stay very long on park benches, making the last line a springboard toward a future that can go in any imagined direction if they stay together. One of those directions arcs back with an easy, not “fearful” Blakean symmetry, toward the first lines in the piece. This is the kind of craft that is more difficult to pull off than it appears.
Poems that work as portraits of domesticity are comfortable, and provide respite from drama without diluting it. Good, homey fiction does the same thing, but for reasons that could fill volumes, domestic poetry rarely gets as large an audience. “The Child in Wonder Falling On Grass” has few hard edges, and if it were any longer, it would be too much:
Spring’s early heat turns you to dervish.
Your knees soiled green from tumbles,
with wild screams you protest mother’s firm grip.
Then, minutes later, you sleep, curled in her lap.
Smells of coming rain, mud, and wild onion
surround you, while further, only inches
in the great scheme, expands the black unbreatheable,
which astronauts say smells like burning tungsten.
This year the black drop of Venus will mar
the perfect sphere of our small dense star.
A middling yellow one among millions similar,
it warms your skin, the grass, the dirt below the grass,
as it absorbs the remains of supernovas
bursting their whipped cores.
This is a poem by someone who understands visual and philosophical perspective, and where they meet human touch in a way that is simply affecting.
Sex is never very far away in these pages, and tonally, edges are sometimes gentle, sometimes sharp, and usually just right, as in :
Over a cigarette, you do a fine job
of refuting the concept of free will.
This is from “She Dreams of Four Ways Around Her Dilemma,” which begins with an unnecessary epigraph from Don Juan. Donna Johnson’s sexy imagery, like almost everything else in this thoughtful, passionate collection, is well put together, never shocking, and often satisfying.