Spots of Time: A Review of Kathleen Johnson's Subterranean Red

Kathleen Johnson, SubterraneanRed (Mongrel Empire Press, 2012)

Kathleen Johnson’s Subterranean Red treats of memory in the form of murmur and of snapshot. Like a character in a gothic novel held captive by a ghostly lover, the poet is haunted by a past she would rather escape and yet, despite herself, courts in her imagination. This past is often evoked visibly in the series of family photos that accompany the text, a technique reminiscent of Jeanetta Calhoun Mish’s very successful Work is Love Made Visible. Rather than bringing back the past, however, these pictures and the poems which they accompany serve to remind the reader that what time has broken can never again be made whole, that memory is always a matter of arranging and rearranging the fragments. Remembering is imagining.

The theme of the past’s constant murmuring in the consciousness of the poet is established in the collection’s first poem, “The Apothecary of Minerva Best.” As throughout the book, memory presents itself as both desirable and painful:

                        I’m left with an ache as faint

                        and elusive as the sound in

                        a conch put to my ear.

                        The ebb and flow now

                        no more than a murmur

                        or a memory.

The image of the conch summarizes well the way in which memory is sought as a pleasure yet remains elusive and painful. Johnson adds to this theme by the use of internal and occasional rhymes throughout the book. The faint rhyming becomes a form of echo, of murmur. Take for example these lines from “Three Generations of Cherokee Women: A Portrait,” in which she describes her great-grandmother:

                        She’s seen them come and seen them

                        go. The stories she could tell

                        I’ll never know. But her hands look like

                        they’ve wrung a thousand chicken necks.

There is enough ghost of the iamb in these lines to accent the rhyme of go and know, but the line breaks skillfully work to half bury the rhyme. This effect is even more powerful in the beautifully evocative “Wild Sand Plums”:

                        Roadside sunflowers face the sun,

                        sway in the wind.

                        Near the cornfield, I bend

                        to pick up a mottled feather.

The rhyme is of course both aural (wind and bend) and visual, the figure in the poem bending in rhyme with the top-heavy sunflowers. Enacting the way imagination constructs the past, the poem builds itself from echoes and murmurs. Johnson’s poems are this carefully constructed throughout Subterranean Red.

Many of the poems in this volume are written in the psychologically frank fashion we have for over half a century now referred to as “confessional,” but these poems nevertheless recognize, as does the best work of Robert Lowell, the role of imagination in framing and shaping memory. The accompanying photos rather than representing proof of a definitive past are offered rather as self-conscious constructions of family history. At times, the photos, like the poems, represent an effort to remake that history, as in “Granddad Scott”:

                        On my wall I keep a picture

                        so I won’t remember him just as a cruel man:

                        in a white dress and turned-up cap,

                        he is a blue-eyed baby


                        on his daddy’s lap.

At other times they are emblems of something more like negative versions of Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” as in “Father’s Day”:

                        And I realize that the line from my dream

                        has something to do with

                        this picture, that even in sleep I cannot

                        rest, but must forever watch

                        him falling off that fence,

                        falling to pieces.

In both versions, be it dream or wakeful and willed effort, the photo represents the activity of the poet’s imagination. The pictures, like the poems, don’t capture the past: they shape it. As Johnson says in “Following the Red Hills Home,” “the imagined is as real as the rest of it.” It is Johnson’s sharp imagination, along with her artistic presentation and self-consciousness, that keeps the poems about, for instance, her father’s philandering from descending into the sort of cheap latter-day confessional poetry that relies on shock and attitude rather than on craft and rumination.

In “Raven Mocker” Johnson gives us the raven as an image of, among other things, poetic inspiration, something beautiful but also dark and dangerous. Such a bird is a fitting mascot for these poems, alive to the point of tense contact with death itself, earthly scavengers yet transcendent in flight. Subterranean Red is a poignant, powerful book of poems that will be reread for many years to come.

Some Good News

My first collection of poetry, Praise Nothing, is now available for pre-order at, Powells, and Barnes & Noble! The listed release date is February 1.

The book was a finalist for the Miller Williams Poetry Prize and is being published by the University of Arkansas Press. Working with the the talented people at the press has made this process unbelievably easy. So very professional and helpful. I feel lucky. So thankful.

The cover image to the left is somewhat low-res, but it'll have to do until I can get a higher-res version from the press. The brilliant artwork that appears above the title is called "Solar Eclipse 2 (Crowd Watch)" and is by Andrew B. Myers, who was kind enough to let me use his work. If you don't know his work, check it out by clicking this link. Also, here's a link to an image of the entire piece.

The book will also be available at the AWP Conference in Boston this March. That's where Praise Nothing will make its official debut. I'll be signing copies at the AWP Bookfair, March 8. More details on that signing and upcoming readings coming soon.

Other good news: my poem "Exchange," one that's really central to my new work, has just appeared in the current issue of Anti-. Many fine poets in this issue, including Keith Montesano, Ruth Awad, David J. Daniels, Nate Pritts, Richard Newman, Stephanie Goehring, and many others. I hope you'll click over and ready my poem and the other works included in this issue.

In other news, I'm contemplating moving this blog over to a webpage or platform that's a little more official and stable. My posts here have been so infrequent in recent months that I don't think I can really call this "blogging" anyway. It's sad to think of this project as being defunct, but it may just be time to move on. I'll keep you posted.

Risk & Point of View

In the last couple of weeks, I've been asked to talk a lot about point of view in poems. In workshops I often question whether the poem has enough risk or urgencyThere are many ways to heighten tension in a poem. Some are thematic, e.g. alluding to backstory. Some are syntactical, e.g. phrasing a sentence as a question. Some are formal, e.g. breaking lines at a critical junction, or enjambment between stanzas. 

But I think point of view is undervalued as a determinant of tension. The POV you choose helps shape the risks your poem can take. 

First Person: Here, the central risk is one of discovery. The speaker's understanding of something, or the reader's understanding of the speaker, should change across the course of the poem. That doesn't mean the subject might not also do something. But keep in mind that you've chosen a POV that privileges his or her perception of that act/experience, a version that may or may not be reliable, versus focusing on the act/experience itself. 

Second Person: Here, the central risk in one of disclosure between parties. A secret is being revealed or created by those present in the world of the poem. If the "you" is being addressed through a series of imperative commands, then he or she should be asked to do something counterintuitive to what we know of that identity. 

There are a ton of Second Person poems being written right now, in part because it is a shortcut to intimacy with the reader. But it's frustratingly static when "I" tells "you" a story, across the course of the poem, that in reality would already be known and complete between the two parties. It's a gimmick, much like when the character in a short story pauses on a doorstep and flashes back to an entire romance right while her finger is pressing the theoretical buzzer. 

Third Person: Here, the central risk is dramatic. These are characters, and you control their stage, even if your writing is inspired by contemporary or historic events. A compelling Third Person poem, whether bird's-eye (in which you're battling the drag of expository language) or omniscient (in which you're tackling the beast of authenticity), is an awe-inspiring thing; I wish more people would try their hand at them. 

Ask yourself why your draft uses its particular point of view. Try envisioning the same poem in First Person, Second, Third. What does an outside view reveal or emphasize about your "characters" and their dynamics? What secrets would one tell the other? How do you newly sympathize (or not) when an antagonist becomes the speaker?

When the poem finds its destined POV, it will cling to it. Your favorite moments won't work in the other modes. You can try the same thing with verb tense: rotate the poem through past, present, and future. And I always create an intermediate draft in which all line and stanza breaks are erased. I massage the syntax as a prose-paragraph, then I break again. Sometimes this results in the same visual format. Sometimes not. 

When the poem starts to fight back, to commit over and over to certain aesthetics, that's when I know I'm on my way. And I'm wrestling with one right now, so wish me luck.