Uncommon Prayer, Kimberly Johnson’s third book of poems, is a book of transition in the deepest sense. Johnson’s first two collections, Leviathan with a Hook (Persea, 2002) and A Metaphorical God (Persea, 2008) are erudite, strange, and ultimately affirming. Uncommon Prayer, however, transitions from affirmation to a more emotionally direct ambivalence. The arc is signaled in the first poem, “Matins for the Last Frost,” which opens with a lush description, in one languorous sentence covering eleven lines, of the imminent bloom of a tulip bulb—“a leggy dishabille in lipstick.” Significantly, though this is a poem for Matins, we are not in the space of traditional Christianity. Church bells “raise their brazen” “somewhere on the other side of town.” How appropriate, then, that “Matins” is a liberated sonnet, dispensing with traditional rhyme and meter while adjusting the placement of the volta. What use is a form, after all, unless it fits a current need? Clearly, when the poem concludes, “everything is about to change,” it means anything as well.
Repositioning and reevaluating tradition and traditional symbols drives Uncommon Prayer. In the poem, “Blanks,”
The sun rolls up like jackpot,
the thousand blinding coins of it spilling
across my windshield’s dustdapple.
Johnson’s images are often this gorgeous. What I find most compelling here, though, is that while the allusion to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” is clear, Johnson’s dappled beauty is figured, not through Hopkins’ God-revealing nature, but through the blind, or rigged, chance of a slot machine. Johnson holds up old figurations and symbols to re-examine them, to shine the bald light of continually expanding human knowledge and experience on them, and to turn from them, often painfully, often ferociously, to seek out new symbols that just might better serve the contemporary human in a contemporary world. What’s particularly nice is that Johnson doesn’t discount the human need for a spiritual life, for something beyond the self. There’s real longing here despite anger, frustration, and betrayal. And she’s willing to say the brain is the source of that deepest, spiritual longing:
still the brain jangles in its pan
like a single alms-penny. Poor brain. Its hungers
make the body an amateur.
One tradition that she does not shake is Cartesian duality. Conflict is often implicitly framed as between mind and body, but for Johnson the mind is no less fallible than the body, just more ravenous for its wants to be fulfilled.
Juxtaposing the beautiful with the disturbing, the highly Latinate with the gritty, the high with the low, is a strategy Johnson has long been adept at. For instance, I’m reminded of “Marking the Lambs,” from A Metaphorical God, which describes traditional lamb castration—that is, with the speaker’s teeth—through a sonnet’s elegant charge. But the poems of Uncommon Prayer are rhythmically and syntactically more comfortable in their own skin than her past work. For instance, these lines from “Crepuscular”:
That’s what the light does
in autumn, slanting southward and brownly
between the hunched houses of the neighborhood.
It falls against the sidewalk like a slab
of meat, like a mugging the passersby pass by.
The assurance in lines like these speaks to the confident willingness to speak that runs throughout the book—a willingness that clearly echoes Emily Dickinson. I feel like I can go a long way with this poet and neither of us will get tired. There’s a confidence, combined with originality, which is constantly refreshing and lends unquestioned credibility to the voice. Such juxtapositions are also a primary strategy for discovery, for finding new symbols and deflating old ones. All those stars?—just “confetti, gleeful streaking/ down the sackcloth dark” (“Big Finish”). The old awe is replaced with awe of a new, humbler, recognizably transient, beauty.
The desire to be fulfilled grows more palpable as the book progresses, and the means to find fulfillment take more surprising, even disturbing, turns. As a John Donne scholar, Johnson is clearly writing in the mode of “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” but without Donne’s allegiance to the traditional configuration of the relationship between supplicant and divinity. One reason Donne’s sonnet maintains its unity despite the language of rape is that it explores the implications of a believer’s total reliance on God’s grace to one logical reading—God the conqueror. Uncommon Prayer rejects such a relationship early and wholly: “Not you the piston whose combustion thrust/ shoves the rod that drives my crankshaft” (“Nonesuch”). The opening section ends with a praise song, appropriately titled “A Benediction: On the Tulpenwoede of Seventeeth-Century Holland,” where new things that cannot last—the tulip strains and their names—are used as the embodiment of symbols that deteriorate:
the Semper Fidelis
subsides to the Fidelis in a season,
the Volition evolves into the Volitant.
Johnson seems to be echoing the willingness of Hopkins in his “terrible sonnets” to let the mess remain messy, the incomplete incomplete. The second section, “Uncommon Prayers,” is a series of persona poems where either the supplicant or the deity try out new identities (e.g. “Bug Zapper,” “Corpse-flower,” “Catapult,” and, perhaps my favorite, “The Lord God Bird”) until the speaker concludes by swearing, utterly alone in an empty Western landscape, ultimate allegiance to her own soul and whatever that soul may reveal—to “follow [it] anywhere” (“Cowpunch”).
The central conflict—the central source of un-fulfillment—throughout Uncommon Prayer is the circumscribed space within Christian symbolism for this particular speaker as a woman. The symbol Johnson wrestles with most forcefully is the Biblical bridegroom and bride, often through references to unfaithfulness and divorce (see, for instance, the above passage from “A Benediction”). As a reversal of Donne’s configuration of God the conqueror and poet as damsel in distress married to the enemy, the final poem—and final section—“Seige Psalter,” is an abecedarian of prose poems that take their titles from the ICAO alphabet used by NATO and the military in radio communication. Here the speaker is the one laying the siege, and yoking irreconcilables in all their honest messiness seems to be the point: psalms for the enemy, warring with the sacred, human and divine. The speaker flatly states, “I am here, in this deviance, and I am trying to help you find me” (“Echo”). In all the back and forth we see this particular woman’s need to be fully present as who she is and not as a type. And we see her corollary desire to know God free of types as well. Johnson takes on “Pied Beauty” again in a poem that begins, “Glory be to God for bungled things,” and characterizes God as “hamfisted, hamstrung, and never else so like us” (“Golf”).
Prose poems are perfectly suited to such re-configuration—the ceremony of traditional form is laid aside in an effort to avoid the desire to “give [our lurches] a shape that is comely and pleasing to make us forget for a moment the trenches and the grand historic sweep of hurt. Selah” (“Foxtrot”). Johnson wants reality in its full complexity and pain and joy. There’s no room or time for over-allegiance to inadequate symbols, in whatever shape, old or new.
This is poetry that can make a head hurt, but in the best ways. Johnson allows us to see the spiritual life in ever-new ways, never (like so much verse of the spirit) settling on pat conclusions or giving in to a desire to make it all okay. Instead, we see a woman “unraveling / To resignation, to rage, to the day // She shucks the sackcloth, unpins her hair, / And bulldozes the porticoes down” (“Orbweaver”). The experience is disturbing and consoling, foolish and wise, and so many other seemingly opposite descriptors. It is compelling the whole way through and for a long time after. Selah.
David Thacker is a PhD candidate in poetry at Florida State University and holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Idaho. A recipient of the Fredrick Manfred Award from the Western Literature Association, his poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Subtropics, The Cortland Review, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere.