“THE ACHE” – The Delicious Peril of the Poetry of Sara Eliza Johnson

American poet Sara Eliza Johnson

American poet Sara Eliza Johnson

From View From the Fence, On Which I Sit and Dangle My Legs

The horses are beating inside the field.
The horses are the night’s blood

congealed. Moon-whipped horses,
frost-spun, clicking their teeth

against dead grass. Horses
with stomachs full of dust, how the flies

pick at their eyes, in love.

Sara Eliza Johnson from Bone Map, Milkweed Editions, 2014

How to corral a pack of wild mustangs; how to contain the lyric riches and surprises of the poems of Sara Johnson, her bravura metaphors and images? How to describe the world where her poems dwell, a world I know yet one also unfamiliar and wrapped in a sinister strangeness, still somehow beautiful, that changes everything, like snow on first leaves at dusk in Spring.

And what am I left with after reading Johnson? I am left with what my friend Nancy describes as “soul sadness”. I call it a soul ache from from an “isness” inside her poetry that portrays the unrelenting ache of being human, the ache of too much beauty, too much suffering. It’s the ache that for me defines great poetry.

In his back-cover blurb for Johnson’s book, Garrett Hongo, has no trouble describing Johnson’s poetry: Hers is a cunning and dangerous poetry, deceptive in its apparent innocence, drawn from a well of the beautiful and macabre, a crystal cup of roses dipped in the tongue-blood of wolves.

Hongo’s description rises to the same metaphoric pitch Johnson seems to hit much of the time. Maybe that’s why I like it. Yet I want to reach even further to describe a poetry that seems to exist not just in three dimensions but in four! A poetry that seems to open a portal into a new reality.

A few nights ago ghosts and goblins haunted otherwise familiar roads and streets in towns and cities in North America. Not this kind of haunting but one more dangerous and threatening has shadowed me for months. Try as I might I can’t seem to break its spell, its exhilarating yet ominous presence in my psyche. The way it makes me feel uncomfortable, somehow unsafe, in a world, still beautiful, yet gone terribly wrong; the way her metaphors allure me, burn under my skin like a sting, like the bees in this poem:


It begins on the brightest
afternoon, my body

held in a corona

I can taste the sugar
and the heat of.

At the edge of the valley
wild hyacinths,

violet ones, scythe

through the shadows,
through my eye.

When I reach the hive
the bees cluster

on my veil like molecules

magnified, a code
to the core of things.

When I lift a comb

one bee stings my wrist,
then another,
the venom a note,

a pulse of light
that rises into a song:

a tower of spikes

or a swaying stalk
of purpling

blossoms. This must be
what love is:

a pain so radiant
it cuts through all the others.

Sara Eliza Johnson, ibid

How is that even when Johnson exalts beauty it still seems to carry a threat? At the edge of the valley/ wild hyacinths,//violet ones, scythe// through the shadows,/ through my eye?

How is it she is able to make the leap from the searing pain of a bee sting to love?

…………This must be
what love is:

a pain so radiant
it cuts though all others.

Sara Eliza Johnson, ibid

Using the metaphor of bees, Johnson’s poems seem either to hold a stinger inside their honey or honey inside their stinger. How is it even when her poems shock and disturb me the richness of her language soothes another part of me? Even these words from Parable of the Flood:

……………………The Boatwright
wants to break your throat into a luminous creaking.

You understand the Boatwright as a figure of God.
You have no use for these things anymore.
Someone should cut out the stars’ tongues, he says

Someone should feed the moon’s intestines to the dogs.
Standing in the field between forest and water, you want
to feel. Kneel, nod your head. Lay it against his blade.

Beautiful ouch!

Johnson’s poems can frighten her too, as she says in a recent interview in 32 Poems: There are certainly poems in which I frighten myself—that I return to and think that maybe my imagination slipped away from me and took on a life of its own, and that induce that feeling of surprise—which I consider to be an achievement of sorts. The poem in Bone Map that most frightened me to write was probably “Parable of the Flood”.

So many ways Johnson makes me feel “the ache”, especially in this next poem with its utterly unexpected ending:

Deer Rub

Deep in the forest, where no one has gone,
where rain bloats the black moss and mud,

a deer is rubbing its forelock and antlers
against a tree. The velvet that covers the antlers

tears into strips, like bandages unwound.
The rain scratches at the deer’s coat

as if trying to get inside, washes the antlers
of blood, like a curator cleaning the bones

of a saint in the crypt beneath a church
at the end of a century, when the people

have begun to think of the bodies
as truly dead and unraiseable,
when children have begun to carry knives
in their pockets. Once the last shred

of velvet falls to the ground, the deer
bends to eat it, nearly finished with ritual
and altar, the tree’s side stripped of bark
while someplace in the world
a bomb strips away someone’s skin.
The deer’s mouth is stained with berries
of its own blood. Then, the deer is gone
and the tree left opened, the rain darkening

red against the hole in the sapwood.
The storm grows louder and louder
like a fear. The deer will shed
its velvet four more times before it dies
of disease; the tree will grow its bark
again. Each atom in each cell will remember
the body it had made in this place, this time,
long after the rain flushes the river
to flood, long after this morning
when the country wakes to another war,
when two people wake in a house
and do not touch each other.

Sara Eliza Johnson, ibid

Here is the biography of Johnson from 32 Poems: Her first book, Bone Map (2014), was selected for the 2013 National Poetry Series. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the Boston Review, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Meridian, the Best New Poets series, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, two Winter Fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and an Academy of American Poets Prize from the University of Utah, where she is currently a Ph.D. student in the Literature & Creative Writing program.