Sand Chapbooks/Red Squirrel Press, 2011 £4.00
Reviewed by Anna Crowe, Peter Daniels and Emma Lee
Anna Crowe:This poet's view of the world is life-enhancing and celebratory: a summation of a life lived to the full, generous in its wisdoms if sometimes elliptical and perplexing. The book feels like a journey, from a Wisconsin childhood to Tanzania and on to Northumberland, much of it travelled by water, via puddles, on frozen lakes (on skates) and across more lakes and down rivers (by canoe), over oceans and seas (sometimes by dhow), via lochs and bogs and deltas. In the course of the journey we meet many of the poet's friends, family and mentors, both eccentric and heroic. There is always a sense of forward movement and impermanence, of a life on the move.
Carlotta Miller Johnson writes with imaginative insight and sympathy. In a poem about Palestinian olive oil, made from the “few Palestinian trees/ not bulldozed”, she tells us that the “taste surprises, not salty like tears.” Her poem 'Jobs' uses understatement and a matter-of-fact voice to lay bare the terrifying banality of torture, here revealed as just another kind of work. And she can suggest a whole life in the feel of a woman's calloused hand in Tanzania. One of my favourites is the poem called 'Weeding My Sister', which celebrates a woman who is open to all that life brings her: “In all of her crevices/ things root” we are told, and a lyrical list soon follows:
ladytress, wake robin,
eyebright, rosy twisty-stalk forget-me-not
There is humour and acceptance of otherness in the way her words are reported:
‘Go away,’ she spits
when I come close to snip.
a crowded, colourful field.
Sometimes the tone strikes a jarring note and more clarity would have been welcome, as in 'Wild Grass', where we are told not to
argue with the moon
nor with your husband there
where the wild moor grass
inspects his feet.
The husband is portrayed as an “axis” and “lighthouse beacon” who is “seen/ unseen.” There seems to be something uncomfortable in the relationship being hinted at, which left me perplexed and unedified. ‘10 Days on the Saco River with Long Term Partner’, on the other hand, is wonderfully honest in its appraisal of the emotional strains of a journey shared in the cramped quarters of a canoe down a river in Maine, and I loved the ending:
On the tenth day
........We didn't say much,
........the Saco River had flowed into us.
The opening poem ‘Traces’, in prose stanzas of mostly incomplete and verbless sentences, summarises the themes of a lifetime and background ancestry, a long-awaited making sense and coming into the self: “Seven decades and all the time thinking she knew the story. There never is only one version.”
This brings together the pamphlet’s perspectives from different parts of a life, often about change, elusiveness and fleeting experience, often with rivers, lakes and sea as imagery or location. Sometimes “river” and “lake” come without an article, like a name—“take me to river”—reading oddly, a kind of mythic mode not quite in the speech idiom being used. Perhaps “With Lake so clear-frozen . . .” is a local US Great Lakes idiom? The genuine work of the poem is more successfully mythic, where the ice starts moving: “The frozen creature stretching”.
There is often simply water, as in ‘River, Garden, Lake’, offering the magical nowness of experience in Northumberland, Tanzania and Wisconsin: for the garden “hoping/ for the rains’ it comes as
At three p.m. she washed her hands in a tiny pail,
a circlet of green appeared where her drops plashed.
In ‘On the Hunt for Puddles’ childhood delight in rivalry— “Harper in the lead . . .”, “Harper struggling through treacly mud”—ends where “seriously soaked/ we splashed on home”. The buildup wants to go somewhere but disappointingly doesn’t, and this effect recurs, as with ‘Ernie’s Shed’, hugely evocative of place and person but needing a story; ‘They Determine to Travel’, a shaggy-dog ramble; or ‘10 Days on the Saco River’—
On the tenth day
........We didn’t say much,
........the Saco River had flowed into us.
That one gently lets go of the previous days’ worries, which feels almost achieved. Is this what many of these poems intend? Could they work better? Is that the wrong question?
Most of the poems draw on personal experience, but one is noticeably different: in the understated irony of ‘Jobs’ we have Ed Smith and his family routine of daughter’s school, his wife’s job at the bakery, his own at the torture chamber, “to plug in the rod/ which won answers and after, to mop-up the floors.”
Some feel more like notes towards poems, for the reader to find or not. The title poem ‘Bliss-Don’t-Give-A-Damn’ comes last— “No one controls it, can summon it”, which seems to be the approach to poetry here. It comes to you or it doesn’t.
It’s a great title, suggesting the poems within are full of energy with a sunny optimism tempered with gentleness. Bliss is calm rather than manic and the title poem fits:
Bliss shows up without an invitation.
At home on these evenings, sprawled
side by side in our pews, like Virginia
and Leonard, endurance feels well earned.
And occasionally, it appears
Virginia and Leonard are the Woolfs. I like the use of “pews” here, in the sense of closed compartment, suggesting an easy long term relationship where two people are relaxed enough to be separate and still side by side. It’s an image used by Christopher Isherwood in A Single Man where George remembers himself and his late lover sitting at opposite ends of the sofa wrapped up in separate books, yet completely aware of the other’s presence. In Carlotta Miller Johnson’s poem, it also has a sound echo with “sprawled” from the previous line as well as continuing the assonance used in the two lines.
Carlotta Miller Johnson was born in Wisconsin and was working in Tanzania when she met her English husband. She now lives in Northumberland in England’s north east but still works for two charities in Tanzania. Like her, these poems travel from childhood memories such as the joy in splashing through puddles and the delights of ‘Ernie’s Shed”, “a hole in the universe, away from schoolbooks, discipline, home rule”, to adulthood. They also explore the dislocation of being in a foreign country but from the viewpoint of making a strange place home. This poet is not a tourist. She can also employ the voices of others, eg in ‘Thesiger’s Desert Notes’, exploring the voice of Wilfred Thesiger, a British photography and traveller who visited the Samburu tribe in northern Kenya:
- slant of sun on cobwebs
- scatter of camel dung,
- a tawny lark’s song,
- sleek turquoise lizards
- the Samburu with their beads and nomadic height
- those who belong here know the practice; stay low
..keep covered, drink the morning dew
- is your heart still afraid of being alone
This is a very different voice from the apparently carefree tone of the title poem. It’s a voice that records without judgement, that wants to learn and take part. Unlike Christopher Isherwood, Carlotta Miller Johnson doesn’t shy from participation. She paddles along the river and fishes, rather than keeping a distance. I very much doubt her heart is afraid of being alone. Through these poems I got the impression of someone with a desire to communicate, share and take part in whatever society she winds up in.