Book Reviews

Reviewed: Jessica Johnson’s In Absolutes We Seek Each Other & Laura Da’s Tributaries

51Oz2LiLx6L._SX305_BO1,204,203,200_Jessica Johnson
In Absolutes We Seek Each Other
New Michigan Press, 2014

Jessica Johnson’s debut collection, In Absolutes We Seek Each Other, is entrancing in its quiet observations of the natural world and human mystery. Johnson establishes her lyric authority in the chapbook’s very first poem, written in loose ballad stanzas. Her lines “I am only eye and ear. / No one here will know me” recall Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody,” though Johnson counters the poem’s light rhythm by cutting it off in the last line:

What is a ghost but memory, a net
unbodied, sweeping through a place?
Passing through a bit of past to see
what catches in the throat.

Formal structure, both poetic and literal, and the idea of witness propel this book: As a scientist in a lab, Johnson’s speaker works to “isolate / and quantify the DNA from our library / of leaf-bits. . .” She’s interested in absolutes but also in the immeasurability of our lives and what we leave behind. The book excels at exploring the tension between simple existence and imagination. Her speaker’s job is to study plants, cloned “to show a difference in the field, /should one arise” but the poet necessarily resists their sameness as well as learning “how to remove oneself.” Ultimately she must decide

. . . how much to let in. Keep the shade that let
me see, one tiny pinhole against all this light, remain
unmoved? Or dial the aperture wide, and risk
the picture: join the mingling we were meant for.

The grace and subtlety of Johnson’s poems inspire, embracing both artifact and elegy, the way “the pieces of the world are calling / to each other.” Interestingly the title of the book’s last poem is “Prologue,” for which we can be glad—it’s a promise that there’s more to come from Johnson.

imageLaura Da’ Tributaries University of Arizona Press, 2015

In Tributaries, her first full-length collection of poems, Laura Da’ proves to be a masterful storyteller. Divided into four sections, the book begins with a Caesarian birth, the mother bracing herself “for the abrasion that draws the past / glistening into the present.” Her son’s “ferocious cry” causes her to “clamp down” and “lay claim” to the present, and more significantly “to our place here.” A member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, Da’ examines what and how we are taught, collectively, about the Native American experience, specifically the Indian Removal Act of the 1800s. President Andrew Jackson’s Act drove the people from their land, leaving a dubious legacy: museums, historical markers and plaques, “feigned Native narratives.” As Da’ writes, “In the end, even the stories are acquisitions.”

In its second section, the book travels from Da’’s son’s birth into the past, introducing the character of Lazarus Shale, a young Shawnee boy living in an Ohio village, who carries us through the story of Native relocation. We see Lazarus’s first memory, his naming by Quaker settlers, and his hunger as the Shawnee are “driven slowly into the west.” Later, we see him as a man, trying to protect his children from the mission school, and finally as one “grown old in that meager shelter / of shadows cast by horses.”

The tributaries of the book’s title are of course the streams and rivers that flowing into larger bodies of water throughout the book, but symbolically, they represent the Natives themselves, forced out of their villages, off their land, and into larger, unknown territories. Historically, a tributary is also defined as a person or state who pays tribute to another state or ruler; such was the role the United States government pressed upon Native people. But in the course of Da’’s telling, a positive connotation of the word takes hold: the flow of energy that includes Lazarus, his descendants, Da’, and the future she helps create. The final poem of the book returns to us to birth, as Da’ describes a naming ceremony, “My son at ten months / staring calmly at morning stars.”

While the narrative in these poems impresses, Da’’s lyricism creates visceral scenes and images. In “Winter Dance of the Oldest Child,” for example, the “girl patches cracks in the wall / with sacking soaked/ in potato starch. // Long strips of burlap / freeze solid. . . .” All those s sounds let us feel that wind, and the repeating p’s are short bursts of breath in the cold. Da’’s choice of words is significant: repetitions of “claw,” “clawed” and “foundered”; the authority figure who “jerked” and “snapped” the young student to attention—this is the language of subjugation and power.

Da’ makes her living as a teacher, and her concerns run to the future. If “even the stories are acquisitions,” how will her sixth grade students learn the truth? If the past isn’t reclaimed, how will they recognize what’s been lost? How will we? “Lazarus,” Da’ writes, “who else could tell this story?” With Tributaries, Laura Da’ herself does a remarkable job. Add it to the curriculum.

Erin Malone is Editor of Poetry Northwest.