Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The Names of Stars - LA Johnson's "Little Climates" (Bull City Press, North Carolina)

There are always signs we chose not to see, California-born LA Johnson tells us in Little Climates, her myth-laden, elegantly poetic collection from Bull City Press, which blends dreamlike encounters and imagined animals with fields of foxtails, little rooms, scavenged bones and razor blades. Fitting together in a collage of understated narratives, the poems paint vivid pictures, simultaneously mysterious and coherent, like short stories with carefully laid out structures and plots, yet distinctly poetic and written in a fluent free verse style quite unique to their author - truly one of the most original books of poetry I have read all year.

Taken as a whole, the collection makes me feel like I am a passenger on some surreal car journey through the poet's native California, but a trip taken by night, as

In the Adobe Valley, early rabbitbrush
lines the freeway, we watch it burst into sight. 

 So often in Little Climates, the detail is in the omission, as in the opening lines, I never had quiet times in the kitchen (Epistimology) or the splendidly implicative We live in a house full of breakable things (Forecast) The poet's skill lies in juxtaposing of everyday images like these, and wonderfully stimulating choices of metaphor:

In the evening, the walls confine
the regular angers. We listen
to the kettle sing on the stove
that nobody bothers to stop. 

In the freezer, always, only the notion
of an icebox cake—its layers
softening to be like the real thing.
The icing, milk and smooth. 

Elsewhere, in the midst of domesticity, a watery enigma is floated, beautifully:

I dreamt tonight of a glass-bottomed boat
floating through a pine forest, needles pierced
above and below my reflection in the lake surface 

There are echoes of Ovid and Dante in the woodland metamorphoses of Shapeshifting:

Strange things click in the forest.
I feel the cold break in a tree hollow.
My body could be taken anywhere. 


Beneath an indifferent grove, I stagger
and filmy minerals take hold inside
my lungs. Deer wake in the night 

 The poem's deft sweep through its strange nocturnal forest enlivens the senses, in stanzas as sleek and image-laden as Haiku

i v. 

In tall grass, velvet-colored antlers
loom above a curved spine collapsed
with fever, hooves splayed in the dirt. 

and which recurs later in the book for a second visitation, as

Bats circle low in the air, cry
in the chimney. All evening I watch
their violent contours of longing. 

...the narrator embodying a liminal presence, transcending linear narrative into a state of pure poetry:

Lying in a field of wildflowers,
I fall asleep with wet hair. I dream
the names of stars, the myth of language 

The poems burn brightly in symbolic colours - yellow warning flags, blueblack clouds, and throughout the collection you have the irresistible sense of a poet who loves language and is unafraid of demonstrating this - and interweaving atmospheric, often deceptively serene, metaphors and imagery with the language of legend and folklore, as in the portentous Oar Fish,

Rarely seen, they are washing up
on shorelines from Catalina to Santa Cruz. 

Legend says the slime-covered, fatty beasts
mean bad luck, like the hundreds that beached 

themselves in Japan right before the tsunami. 

Deer weave in and out of these poems, portending deaths, punctuating journeys through the night or winding drives along roads that curve, play hide-and-seek with high beams, through a landscape of the American River / running parallel to us, icing over in late season.

Today, the two of us perform a funeral for a home—
we wreathe the doorway with lilies, carry
our possessions above our heads like caskets. 

We scatter the enviable parts of our lives
across the lawn: a radio, ceramic bowls, a sweater 

that never fit. Strangers stop by to look
at all our things. They offer us lemonade
and quarters, each one dressed in black. 

before the pent up bottle-neck of emotion compressed
within this startling suite of poems is finally given vent, unleashed in an unexpected, comedic, abrupt
moment of release, as, Then with hammers, we begin the destruction.



An edited version of this review will appear on Sabotage Reviews.

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