The Queer Valentine of the Century: Jenny Johnson’s In Full Velvet
A sticker on the back of my advanced review copy of Jenny Johnson’s In Full Velvet notes, “On sale February 14, 2017 from Sarabande Books.” And here it is, February 14, 2017, and I am reading this book for the third time with a brand-new kitten curled on my lap, a long-time beloved on her way home from work.
Why this book? Why today? That’s easy. Today is Valentine’s Day, and In Full Velvet is, above all else, a valentine.
Perhaps I should begin by saying that I’m a long-time reader of the Sarabande poetry debuts. I treasure in particular Kiki Petrosino’s Fort Red Border, Lauren Shapiro’s Easy Math, and Rick Barot’s The Darker Fall. I treasure them so much I teach them. Now, as I read and re-read Jenny Johnson’s debut, I know I will have to place it soon before my students’ eyes because how long can you keep something you love all to yourself? As I read and re-read, I am also thinking about the valentine boxes we made in elementary school, the mandate from the teacher that “everyone be included,” everyone receive a valentine from everyone else.
Still, girls and boys were encouraged to make “special valentines” for their “special friends” and deliver them outside of class. As early as second grade, we were being groomed—tacitly, but groomed nonetheless—for our romantic futures. In fourth grade, a likeable boy named Lee Bennett kissed me in the stairwell, gave me a special card and chocolate heart filled with peanut butter. That year I made a special card for Mandie Salazar, complete with small sachet of Hershey’s kisses, but when I saw her standing in the foursquare line at recess, I lost my nerve. I knew, without even knowing the words, that my affections would not be received in the way that I intended.
Nearly thirty years later, I’m reading the queer valentine of the century, a book so firm and unwavering in its commitment to Love (writ large!) that it is bound with a hard cover. To my knowledge, In Full Velvet is the only Sarabande poetry hardback of its kind. I have an urge to wear this book as a breast plate, to keep it always close to my heart. As Johnson writes, “Love, come close. Love, lie back. Love lie with me here/ beneath a bridge where the light falling on the water shimmers upward casting/ shadows on the slats beneath.” See—I told you. Valentine.
To whom is this valentine addressed, you may be wondering? Oh, so many sentient beings, human and non-human alike!
To begin, there is the valentine of homage, the way Johnson pays formal and thematic tribute to Gerard Manley Hopkins, placing herself firmly in his lineage with the opening poem, “Dappled Things.” In this remarkable ode, Johnson’s speaker sings: “Thank you for all that’s still somehow counter, original, spare, and strange.” Yes! Like a credo, a queer rallying cry—acknowledging the vital force of Hopkins’ canon so long after his death and pointing toward the queer power it still conveys.
Johnson later goes on to name and praise Hopkins directly: “And because I’m minion this morning to gay old music/ Thanks Gentle Hop for this this-ness, for teaching attention/ How to mark hard word-bodies with stress,/ acute glyphs, blue scores.” Here we find a valentine to sprung rhythm, to incisive imagery, and also (and always) to the natural world: “Our days are charged by so much nature—/ The succulents we carry to Alexis in a plastic bag after her surgery/ A cat pawing at a mantis behind a windowpane/ What we didn’t wash from the lettuce, dirt that’s good danger.”
I should like to love the world as well as Johnson does, to understand my animal nature better, to find my place in the family of beings:
Anaximander of Miletus wrote that the first humans
burst out of the mouths of fish
and that we took form there
and were held prisoners until puberty.
At its root, taxidermy means to arrange skin.
O Love, how precise is any vision?
Because of these poems, I see and more than see—they cause a wild trilling in my veins—the many quiet wonders of the world:
Like an extinct frog who brought life by opening her mouth,/many froglets bursting out
whales with lady hips
And dandelions in the thick grass
growing stamens growing pistils
dripping with effervescent
moss, tannins in the soil
beneath the hemlocks
seeping into runnels
Also: the bank teller with those long lashes
Also: my lover with a look of mischief walking closer
In Full Velvet is valentine-as-testament to the mysteries and mandates of human love.
If you love someone, you must be the guardian of their solitude.
Valentine-as-testament to queer human love, trying:
Firsts and fights
that left the kitchen
whitened by a fine silt of flour
and bras twisted into
the untidy nests of lyrebirds
and closety love
at the drunken end of straight parties,
and in shower stalls.
Valentine-as-testament to queer human love, failed but also learned from:
I’ll tell you what the girls who never love
us back taught me: The strain within will tune
the torqued pitch.
This book is further a valentine to perfect unrequited love, trenchant in memory:
Let this be a ballet without intermission: the grace of this ride beside her
on the green vinyl, soft thunderclaps in the quarry.
Let me be her afternoon jay,
hot silo, red shale crumbling—
A valentine to imperfect requited love, more trenchant in memory still:
Rolled together in the night
you weren’t sure how to speak at first of
your body’s position to mine
but then you could.
The small-town heat makes everything stick,
our skin pressing into one another,
the hair soft and light above your tailbone—
I won’t forget how you directed me there.
Perhaps most necessary and astonishing of all, this is a valentine to self-love and the elusive search for it, as epitomized by Johnson’s secular psalm, “Summoning the Body That is Mine When I Shut My Eyes.” Herein the speaker calls upon her body as a creature that will hearken at last to its own name:
Come second heartbeat sounding the breast […] Come familiar spirit Come bare-chested in the weeds
Come private imposter Come hidden ballast […] Come strumming an unspeakable power ballad
This book becomes that ballad. How I long to transcribe it for you word for word! How I long to sing you everything that has been sung to me here, including the sweet, poignant significance of the title! (I only resist so you will have the thrill of unearthing that treasure yourself…)
What I can tell you is that odes need elegies, just as the element of air requires the element of earth for balance. Johnson’s collection gives us the gauzy invocation but also the grounded rumination. Her “Elegy at Twice the Speed of Sound” begins:
At fifteen I was so willing to wait it out underground
I cut practice to disappear beneath the pavement, carrying only a flashlight
in the waistband of my nylon track shorts,
a red trace of graffiti beckoning me forward through a strange and drafty tunnel—
In fairy-tale terms, this is the katabasis, the hero’s essential descent into an underworld of reckoning.
As each car passed above, a sliver of light from a manhole would wink shut.
Was I vanishing?
The katabasis has now been queered, the reckoning turned toward reclamation:
Or I should name this ache, call it archive fever, reading a speech
given in 1992 by a man,
(Why haven’t I heard of him until now?)
a translator, a scholar, a poet, who warned before dying
of complications from AIDS,
“I will be somewhere listening for my name…”
Or should I go by what’s been said of my elders, however little?
Without a record, they were two “old maids.”
A valentine is also a promise. What else could it be, that offering of love?
The greatest promise Johnson makes to me as reader is the fixity of our queerness, the endurance and ineradicability of it. She has, after all, conjured glimpses of a childhood I recognize, one I can never lose completely, but never find completely either:
During recess, I remember
the parachute in my hands
an open shadow
breeze billowing through
when everyone pulled
the chute upward to run beneath
Like how when I was shoved in grade school
on the blacktop in my boy jeans [the ones I wanted to wear but wasn’t allowed] the teacher asked me if I had a strawberry
because the wound was fresh as jam, glistening
like pulp does after the skin of a fruit is
peeled back clean with a knife.
how good it felt to straddle the sawhorse [mine was a tree], out behind the shed, half tomboy,
How I clenched a two-by-four between my thighbones and it was a part of me.
Johnson promises me, and every reader, this most exceptional thing: “There Are New Worlds.” I know she speaks the truth because her book is one of them—counter, original, spare, and strange—a new world of queer and literary and queer-literary possibilities.
In this poem, which I don’t mind telling you is my favorite poem, Johnson’s speaker confides:
I first kissed a woman
after hours of silence and shared cherry Chap Stick
late at night on a bench
in a garden that was historical
Thomas Jefferson must have sat there, too
cross-legged in his wig
or Gertrude Stein, I hope, legs straddled wide
on a speaking tour
explaining, A rose is a rose is a rose
Of course a rose is a valentine, too—the most traditional, and in this case, also the most subversive kind.
Remember when Muriel Rukeyser famously asked, then answered: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
In Full Velvet offers the truth of a woman’s life—the queer truth, the queer rose, the queer valentine. And everything is different after that moment of initiation, instantiation. Not easier, of course, but newer and fresher and more possible than it has ever been before.
Behold our speaker after that kiss:
I strode home alone
the icy November chill
like a cygnet paddling
in a fresh, dark lake.
Early in the book, this speaker mused: “Do I look hard enough to receive?” The answer is yes. She might have asked, “Do I look hard enough to give?” The answer is also yes.
This is a speaker and a writer looking and loving hard enough to deserve this hardest cover. And when my beloved opens the door, and our new cat leaps from my lap, I put the book down and notice my fingerprints all over the cover.
Where there is
no lineage, no record,
proof, there are
myths, and where
there are no myths,
there are traces:
This is not by accident, I suspect. In Full Velvet enfolds its reader. The best valentines are invitations, where the feelings are mutual. And thus: you, the reader, become one of these traces. This book rubs off on you, but it works the other way, too. Which is to say: no matter who you are, you can’t pick up this book without leaving your mark on its cover.