Friday, November 7, 2008

Degrees of Freedom

Review by Michelle McEwen

Nicholas Johnson, Degrees of Freedom
Bright Hill Press, 2006
35 pages

Degrees of Freedom wants to be called Facts of Life. “Facts of Life” – which is a poem included in this book – sums up Johnson’s book best. Most of the poems seem to give it to us straight— no crooked overabundance of flowery words that lead us astray. In “Facts of life,” we can’t hide from his facts and his questions:

“It takes 32 feet of rope to hang the average man.
In Kansas that’s a fact. Do you believe marriages are
happier and last longer in Orlando? The worst

in Albuquerque? I’m not making this up …

Coffee drinkers are less likely to commit suicide …

… Things start piling up: Lynchings, broken promises, a sharp blade
in a tube of lipstick …

…The blues sure
hold us down.”

Frank, right? Yet not so much that you miss the poetry in it. This is how Nicholas Johnson operates. His poems all have a ring (a ring the size of one of Saturn’s rings, that is) of truth to them, but they are also written in such a way that you know you are reading a poem and not just a journalist’s notebook— Johnson mixes the best of both and he does it well. He turns ordinary language and commonplace things into poetry. He pulls, yanks, snatches, wrenches the poetry out and says gotcha! In the poem “Flatbed Truck," we come across a truck “rusted [and] abandoned in the upstate woods … obviously used for target practice.” I get the sense that the poet stumbled across this flatbed truck and said, “A ha! Poetry!” The flatbed truck

“…Shot full of holes, looks
real good smashed against this tree. Abused

after the crush, gutted, left to rot, dirt
in the back became a bed for flowers,
weeds, trees grown in the wrong place. Doesn’t
to take a snapshot to remind us…”

Someone other than Nicholas Johnson would have walked right by this truck. He made poetry out of something rusted and abandoned— that’s magic, that’s poetry. In “Country Life,” we find more of that magic:

“The pickup’s got a full tank, a cooler full
of brew, shotgun legal and loaded for bear
but we’re not after bear. We’re tired of dull
humdrum life but we hum like we don’t care ...”

But out of this humdrum comes poetry and Nicholas Johnson knows that. He takes the humdrum and hammers the poetry out— shows us that the facts of life make for good poetry. He shows this best in the poem “Back Home”—

“Nothing much has changed. The insects
ping against the bellied screen that then
stayed open more than closed, swung
creaking and snapped back like those doors
will do that belong mostly to the poor.
Swung by children and the ones who’d rather
not porch it …

…You might have considered it
a triumph on another day to fall asleep
with your face in your plate, with all
the heat bugs whining tomorrow’s weather …”

A screen door, a porch, heat bugs— only a poet with Nicholas Johnson’s skill, candor, and wit could spin these things into a poem. Nicholas Johnson, in his poems, seems to be always meditating and mulling over life and I get the sense he is doing his meditating and mulling over while sitting on the porch mentioned in the poem above— nothing ever escaping his notice, nothing deemed too commonplace for poetry.

Degrees of Freedom available here: