Review by John Freeman
by Larry Johnson
David Robert Books
P.O. Box 541106
Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106
2009, 108 pp., $18.95
As a long-time fan of his poetry, it was with a great sense of delight that I read and re-read Larry Johnson’s long-awaited first book, Veins. The reviews I’ve seen so far have dealt primarily with the recurring themes in these poems, and the book is heavily thematic. However, I want to focus on the remarkable poetic craft Johnson exhibits in this book.
When I read a Larry Johnson poem, the first thing that leaps out at me is the brilliance of individual lines and passages. I know of very few other contemporary poets who can create such elegance of words and rhythms as Johnson does in nearly every poem. Consider, in “Moorish Idol,” his description of the titular fish’s environment:
…fanned in sunlight’s saffron brood
Of motes, starred fragments, phototropic veils
Where plankton navigate the warping sails
his depiction of a drowning boy’s experience in “Near Eastabuchie, Mississippi”:
…he looked up, certainly,
and saw his cries become silver globes
as the sky was whirled and sucked
into flawed milkglass—a dense
congealment of light, water, breath.
his image of modern angst in “Mal de Siècle (III)”:
…our dreams try vainly to soak
Purulent dunes silting the rivers of sleep
And in my favorite poem in the book, “Frozen Danube,” his portrayal of a worshipper suddenly in the presence of the Goddess:
Cybele’s face hid too close—in terror I felt
fine languorous hairs quiver at edges of lips
and a fluence of mouth opening to exhale
excrescence of living clove, salivary nuance of heat
reaching, encroaching, ghostly cerements of touch
in the veined, resinous night….
Not many poets today could get away with using polysyllabic, Greco-Latinate words such as “phototropic,” “purulent,” “excrescence,” etc. But with his exquisitely skillful sense of rhythms and sound repetitions, Johnson unlocks the latent sonorities of these words. They swell with sound like symphonic instruments.
Of the fifty-six poems in Veins, eleven are sonnets. By today’s standards, the word “sonnet” can mean almost anything. A poem does not even have to have fourteen lines to be labeled a sonnet. But Johnson is, for the most part, a classical poet, and the classical sonnet is a specific structure that posits an idea and then funnels it forward to a conclusion that provides satisfactory closure. It is the epitome of rational argument and linear thinking, both of which seem to be anathema to postmodernists.
In fact, most, though not all, of Johnson’s sonnets in the book end with a closing couplet, a rhetorical device that “clenches” the argument and leaves the reader with a strong impression of closure. There is always a danger involved in using a closing couplet, in that it can have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The trick is to choose the rhyming words with extra care so that, when the moment of truth arrives, they surprise rather than cloy the reader. In “Jean Sibelius Bags a Soviet Plane, 1948,” the Finnish composer vows to destroy the music he is working on if he can bring down a Soviet fighter plane with his rifle. When he succeeds:
He thinks, watching the smeared speck as it burns,
Roils brumy below horizon, its soundless crash
Too soon avenged by his music’s snowclean ash.
In “Last Days of Juvenal,” Rome’s most biting satirist is retiring from the fray, seeking peace and comfort in his old age:
…he will no longer rage
At Rome as on some cracked column a crow
Might squawk hoarsely at depilated whores
Drifting, like him, toward Caesar’s gilded doors.
And in “Gottschalk in Peru,” the famous pianist is caught in a gun battle between revolutionaries and the army in Lima. When it is over and he comes out of hiding, he is ordered to help gather the bodies as though he were a common peasant:
But now, hands Liszt has envied ripple, splash
Through fountains, glissand a corpse’s limp mustache.
Though many of these poems are free-verse, Johnson is basically a formal poet (one of the old, rather than new, formalists), and in addition to sonnets there are many other rhymed poems, including one in heroic couplets, “Moorish Idol.” Heroic couplets—iambic pentameter lines rhymed aa bb cc, etc.—are especially difficult to pull off in contemporary poetry because the rhymes are so close together and predictable that they can easily overwhelm the content. But Johnson proves his skill with rhyme after rhyme in this poem, never allowing the sound to deafen the sense. The opening couplet immediately establishes the exotic nature of the subject:
Like fleshtrailed moon, the idol of the Moor,
Yellow-phosphored as the Kohinoor
He continues to offer deft rhymes throughout the poem, such as:
At the first touch of tainted water, plies
all the way to the closing couplet:
They reject both parching fluxes of emotion
Which lack the rationality of ocean.
“Organic” rhymes of this sort (in which there is a syntactical and/or rhetorical connection between the words) reinforces the relationship between sound and sense.
There are also numerous poems in blank verse. In these, Johnson reveals his virtuosity with rhythms and word sounds, mostly by counterpointing the expected rhythmical patterns. Here are some excellent examples:
as the fuzzy star foretold the lingering deaths
of Art Nouveau, icebergs of privilege—
and the music of an undead century
shrieked as it was heated to plasma and streamed.
Note the way “lingering” slows down the line, and how the anapests at the end, along with the long e assonance, speeds it back up, almost like water coming to a boil.
Near Carrhae in the desert he stopped for relief
where palms slanted athwart a scythe of moon
(“Death of Caracalla”)
Because the trochee “slanted” replaces the normal iamb, the entire line seems to slant like the trees.
…as the gasses seething our lungs to crackling husks
and the boiling sludge enveloped us with the sound
of vast black mothwings beating on the sun.
(“Red Skeletons of Herculaneum”)
The repetition of gutturals in the first line and plosives in the last two create astonishing effects of sound reinforcing sense.
Even his free-verse poems are musical, imbued with what Eliot referred to as “the ghost of a rhythm.”:
Darkness coming again here in Paris,
weary, like me, of the world’s cigarettes and absinthe:
thin trees begin to pencil the fog
as streetlights weave their web of graygreen light.
I loved you, Nephthys, beside the slain Nile.
Your body then was soft papyrus
and your breath sweet oil.
(“Egyptian Love Poem”)
In addition to his technical prowess, Johnson has composed a formidable array of effective metaphors. In “Hangover in Memory of James Wright,” the speaker describes the aftereffects of a night of heavy drinking:
Arid, spumy spit clouds from my mouth
like spider sacs.
In “Gottschalk in Peru,” as the composer dives into a cellar to escape a raging gun battle:
…curled up, he dreams
The ricochets above are indiscreet
Piano notes spalling a savage salon.
In “Trajan at the Persian Gulf,” the emperor complains:
But there is no water for my legions here
in the River Tigris’ crotch, where her freshness becomes
a saline marsh….
In “Egyptian Love Poem,” the speaker describes the plague that killed so many:
Then fever came and passed like many leopards.
Egypt’s green entrail was gnawed out.
And in “Frozen Danube,” the Roman poet Claudian sees a dire omen:
A comet, one of those glazy flaring thorns
that stab the night increasingly…
We live, unfortunately, in an age in which true craft has largely been ignored or forgotten. I know, I know, the word “craft” is bandied about everywhere, but it has a false ring to it, like an out-of-tune piano or a drummer who can’t get the beat right (which is how too much contemporary poetry sounds). On the other hand, in these poems Larry Johnson has proven himself a master of traditional craft. For those who still have an ear for superb music in poetry, I highly recommend Veins.
John Freeman is a retired teacher living in Harvey, Louisiana. His poetry has appeared in numerous magazines, including Rattle. He is the author of three books of poetry. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.