Review by George Perreault
(Blue Horse Press, 2019)
Immediately upon entering this haunting chapbook, we encounter a landscape that is at once familiar and startling, tender and savage, sacred and profane. Starting with the dedication of the first poem, the author grounds us in a personal and immediate life, and we become both witness and tribal participants in the underlying sexuality and violence that can permeate so much of childhood. In the second poem, “Numbers 14:18,” the author speaks to us directly in his own voice, which also echoes that of an Old Testament prophet who offers no salvation. The oasis his father seeks is like heroin; one taste is all it takes For deadwind / to enter and eat / the insides. There is throughout these poems a palpable sense of desperation and abandonment. Dead children wail inside the walls; a woman sets the table for a lost family; boys find themselves in the grip of merciless gods or predatory adults, both male and female.
In one of his signature poems, “Like a Fish Gasping,” Johnson asks, Did I tell you Jonah ran?; but we intuitively know that, unlike his Biblical namesake, this boy will not find a way out of the darkness. It is also a poem drenched in the almost unavoidable if usually passing homoeroticism of boyhood, a theme that turns up in other poems, as with the blind boy who Tasted / my kiss. Unraveled my tongue inside his.
This is not a book for the faint of heart; there is nothing of the easily idyllic here. Johnson does not flinch from this sadness and acknowledges laughter where it exists is lodged in a drain. / Drowned, knotted with hair. Love’s fleeting appearance is reserved almost exclusively for women: a mother, a sister, a young daughter ~ A little girl’s sorrow / is worth a hundred men’s lives. We were warned of this in Numbers, that the wrath of God is passed down through generations of boys who must navigate a perilous world in which a wildfire is always threatening, and a father must wait for sounds / of my son’s feet / racing across the cloven field, forbid / him to pass through the gate.
And yet the ambiguity of that line–do you refuse to let your son out through that gate into a dangerous world or refuse to allow him safety?–is one of the rich features of Johnson’s work. It turns up elsewhere when he conflates the birth of his son with the death of a calf: I lifted him from my lover’s breasts / ….Reader believe me: / I did not take the mother in the holler / and put a bullet through her brain. This is the landscape of :boys, one of stark beauty, of striking imagery and turns of phrase that will stay with you long after you put the book aside, and of a voice that will grip you and bring you back to this treacherous landscape too many of us have crossed on our way toward adulthood. This is a book you need to have and a poet you need to keep an eye on.
Listen to Luke Johnson read, “I’ll talk sadness, sure,”
George Perreault has published in journals and anthologies in the US and internationally. His latest book, Bodark County, is a collection of poems in the voices of characters living on the Llano Estacado in West Texas.
Luke Johnson lives on the California Coast with his wife and three kids. His poems can be found in Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, Florida Review, Thrush, Tinderbox, Cortland Review, Nimrod and elsewhere. He was a Finalist for the Pablo Neruda Award, and his chapbook, :boys, released with Blue Horse Press in 2019.