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Luke Johnson

 09-30-2014

 
Luke Johnson
 
The Heart, Like a Bocce Ball
 
The jack sits low in the grass. We’re dead drunk,
cannonballing across the lawn, gouging
handful divots, each of us still nursing
a tumbler of scotch brought home from the wake.
We sons and brothers and cousins. I spin
my ice and let that black-tie loosening
buzz swarm. The others choose the sky, looping
pop-flies that swirl with backspin, an earthen
thud answering grunts while the soft dirt caves.
I bowl instead, slow-ride hidden ridges—
swells buried beneath the grass—carving
a curve, a line from start to stop, finish.
The heart, like a bocce ball, is fist-sized
and firm; ours clunk together, then divide.
 
 
 
Remembering the Old Testament While Walking the Dog

Cobwebs pearl on the hedge-top while the dog
leans on the roots. This part of morning it’s just us
and the old timers taking our walks, a light frost

still dusting the shadowed half of the yard,
sunlight brimming over roofs newly shingled
since the windstorm last month brought down

a live powerline into a pile of leaves,
whipping up a wildfire. Then, the whole valley
smelled like a woodstove during a white winter,

smoke drifting for the sky like morning fog
lifting—What does it mean to be holy, to be
in one place thinking of another, to hear a voice

come from something burning, something alive
fizzling away?—one of those mornings, the only sound
came from a woodpecker hammering an oak tree.

I stood still, listening, straining to hear the fire.


After the Ark
 
Standing under redwoods, it’s easy to believe
in giants, to grieve a field of grasshoppers still alive
 
in wind feathering ferns, ghosts greening
the catkins’-sway.
                          Or maybe grief changes colors
 
in memories and books, showing red
as green, a trick of light to cast shimmers
 
as false shadow.
                                Praying mantes must have ascended
Noah’s gangplanks, one male and female, she
 
resolute in her purpose, he in his expendability.
This precision cannot be called love.
 
Hoof-prints reveal the herd where dust kicked
and has resettled.
                           We are not so fallen
 
we can’t recognize our shadowed edges.
Trees show their rings without protest
 
and the ocean sings a chorus of I do’s, taking in
late-evening quiet along with scores of sinners
 
still wandering, who come to the coast nights,
who would’ve drowned in what my mother showed me
 
of God’s love, the ever-lasting compassion
                                                             too definite
to be human, but I will hide these small things:
 
inventions and embellishments on playing fields
I never took, how I lie—even here, even now—how
 
my mother left my father and I still don’t know
how to forgive her, if I need to—Genesis
 
misses these unpaid fares, and I can only listen
to black water buck while cliffs swallow wind
 
and spit back memory, pushing clouds to sea.
Belief easier said than done when considering scale,
 
this is what a cracked shell tells us about growth.
Once the sky has been covered, roots can only drink.
 
It’s up to us to grow gills, to learn to breathe
here where the flood has become the body.
 
       -from After the Ark, selected by Guest Editor Mark Jay Brewin
 
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Luke Johnson is the author of After the Ark (NYQ Books, 2011). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in New England Review, The Southern Review, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. His poetry has been featured by Best New Poets, Huffington Post, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and his essays have appeared online at Los Angeles Review of Books and the Wall Street Journal. He is Director of the Tinker Mountain Writers' Workshop Online and teaches as an adjunct at the University of Mary Washington. An Associate Poetry Editor at storySouth, he lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
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I'm a Poet. Yes, That's a Real Job.  by Luke Johnson, first published at Wall Street Journal
 

“It is certainly an irrational thing to do if you want either of the usual rewards of fame and riches…Nowadays, it’s about as rational as saying, ‘what do you do for a living’ ‘Well, I’m a kite-flyer.’ I mean, there’s not a great demand for kite-flyers around.” -George Garrett

I once asked a classroom of sixth graders to draw a picture of a poet. Virtually all of them came up with some amalgamation of Walt Whitman and W.B. Yeats—an old white man with a bushy beard, a road cap. A few students drew slim figures wearing all black. One drew a picture of Eminem. They were all, of course, right, or as right as anyone could have been. It was clear that they thought of a poet as someone separate, someone innately and entirely different from themselves (none of these sixth graders were whiskered geriatrics). The first hurdle of teaching them poetry was not convincing them to love the beauty and music of language, but convincing them that a poet could look like any one of them; that poets were, in fact, rational human beings, and that they were all around.

People immediately become suspicious when I tell them I write poems, that I read poems, that sometimes I send poems to magazines in the near-desperate hope that one will be published and maybe, just maybe, a stranger will read (and not hate) it. I’ll tell my oldest friends about the book I’ve recently published. They’ll react with appropriate excitement, go on to ask me about advances and book tours. Then, they tilt their head in confusion when I tell them that a book of poems isn’t quite the same as a book of prose. No book tours, no grandiose payments. “But you’ve put more than five years into this book—when’s the pay-off?”

There’s precious little recompense in the life of a poet. It almost doesn’t make sense to call it a “career’”—because careers are generally synonymous with opportunities for advancement, benefits, and a retirement package. There’s little chance a successful collection of poetry will land you on Oprah’s couch (despite the recent “poetry issue” of O Magazine). There’s a much greater chance that it will land you in the wine-aisle of the wholesale grocery store. Most poets live in permanent recession and must be okay with the intrinsic 401K. The greatest professional reward they will ever receive is the just-written poem. Wallace Stevens called it an “unalterable vibration.” I call it afterglow. The completion of a first draft is a strange and miraculous thing—and more often than not the poem will need hours more work before it’s abandoned (and/or published)—but, those moments after the last period hits the page and before you realize the poem’s flaws are as close to religious experience as I’ve ever come (as the son of two ministers, this seems significant). There’s a renewed attention and clarity, a stirring, a sense that the world has finally fallen into place. Meaning invades household items: the puppy-ravaged couch, the dirty dishes, the neglected azalea bushes; all of them seem to glow with significance. The right poem at the right time can reveal the world in its glorious imperfection, can make it all seem manageable and sane.

But, alas, glow doesn’t pay the rent. So, poets teach, or they go back to school so they can later teach, or they collect obscure job titles to one day use in a cheeky contributor note (I currently work as a Pet Service Specialist). Some of them, often the best of them, will go undercover—wear suits and carry briefcases, returning to their writing desk only after the sun has gone down and the city has gone to sleep. Most mornings I wake up and set to tinkering before sunrise. Commas become periods. Needless adjectives disappear. Lines transmogrify into new lines. It’s a chiseling, a removal of anything and everything getting in the way of the good stuff, that initial glow of the poem’s composition. A friend once called the writing of poetry a “thankless act,” and he may be right. After hours at my desk, the most I’ll ever have to show is another poem, and that is enough (it has to be).

We need poems (and poets) because they remind us of ourselves, of the things we didn’t know we knew, and of our inability to be anything but obsessed. Whether the world demands kite-flyers or not, they will always be there to contextualize the wind, to give dimension to the clouds, and to risk losing their fragile kites to a careless sky for nothing more than the sheer joy of watching it happen.

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An Interview with Luke Johnson by Matthew Huff

Matthew Huff: “The Heart, Like a Bocce Ball” may be one of the best contemporary examples of a sonnet I’ve read. Can you talk to us about your approach to the sonnet and why you chose to use this form here?

Luke Johnson: Thanks for the compliment, Matthew, and for your careful read of these poems. All of them come from my first book, After the Ark, which is comprised primarily of poems I wrote during graduate school. Then, just about everything was in received form. I like when a poem rhymes but doesn’t seem like it does. I like hidden music. The sonnet seems the perfect place to hide music as there’s the expectation of rhyme and meter, but also an expectation of some narrative trajectory as the poem must at some point turn. The writer gets to play with the push and pull of formal expectation. We expect to find grandiose similes of the heart in sonnets. It was up to the poem to subvert those expectations, which I hope it does through the narrative circumstance.

When I wrote this poem, I was really taken with Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances” sequence and Ellen Bryant-Voigt’s wonderful collection Kyrie. In both cases, the poems are sonnets in that they are 14 lines and have rhyme schemes, but the volta, the turn, shifts from poem to poem, and the rhyme schemes develop as each sequence progresses. I would point you to those two poets if asked for the best contemporary examples of a sonnet. I followed these examples. In the case of this particular poem, I arrived at the final two lines stranded in a notebook, and then tried to write a poem that would let me use them. It’s a reversal of the way I usually write—it’s much more fun to write toward discovery—but I was set on having a poem titled “The Heart, Like a Bocce Ball,” as it seemed strange and a bit funny to me. I had a rhyming couplet, so it made sense to me that I could use it at the end of a somewhat bastardized English sonnet.

MH: Though this poem doesn’t follow a rigid rhyme pattern, there’s some fascinating word play going on here. I was particularly intrigued with the words that have multiple connotations. “Wake,” for example, clearly refers to a funeral but also makes allusion to the ocean and other oceanic terms, such as “hidden ridges” and “swell” that lend the poem great emotional resonance while, at the same time, creating this other allusion/metaphor of a sea of emotions that is difficult to navigate. Is this a reasonable reading and, if so, how much of this was intentional, how much was found/discovered as you composed and revised?

LJ: With the last answer in mind, I would argue there is a rhyme scheme, though it’s heavily slanted (drunk/wake; ridges/ finish; spin/earthen; caves/carving; etc.). Maybe it’s just a gang of half-rhymes standing behind the poem. Maybe I just wanted to write the phrase “gang of half-rhymes.”

“Wake” has always struck me as a poetic term for a memorial gathering. All of us there in (at) my mother’s wake as she moved away from us; and also “wake” as a call to alertness, the renewed sensitivity and awareness that can only be accessed from a place of deep mourning, the world just after it has shaken us to life.

Discussions of intent and composition are always shaky for me. I would say most of my intentionality comes in revision. For the initial composition, a lot of it is trying to get out of my own way, to not burden the reader with every aspect of the narrative but rather to focus on music and line and economy of language. I like to think that every poem has a story, a dramatic action of some kind (even if it’s just embedded in the lyric), but poems are not stories. The reader does not need to know who won at bocce ball.

MH: The other element of this poem that really stuck with me was the fantastic use of verbs: cannonballing, gouging, caving, thud, grunt, etc. They create a strong sense of violence and emotional pain within the poem. Can you talk to us about integrating these elements into the poem via verbs and other various tools of the poet? 

LJ: It’s difficult to verbalize grief. In the case of this poem and many others in the book, I tried to search out a vehicle for grief through dramatic action, because to show us a sullen and quiet blond boy at his mother’s funeral is to elicit pity rather than to excavate experience. The vehicle of the narrative/metaphor allows the verbs their violence.

MH: Though there are clearly other characters in this poem, the speaker of this poem is set apart not only by physical choices within the game but also with the haunting insights into the heart’s isolation from others: “The heart, like a bocce ball, is fist-sized /and firm; ours clunk together, then divide.” How did this metaphor of the heart as a bocce ball come to you?

LJ: Early lessons in anatomy, to my memory, described the size of the heart as roughly fist-sized. This comparison always struck me as strange. You’ve got these two bodily images with very different connotations: the heart as a symbol of love, the fist as a symbol of violence. Each one the size of the other. During a bocce game up and down Wrightsville Beach, a friend called her scattered red bocce balls “a sea of hearts,” and I was off to the races.

MH: How much of your poetic inspiration is derived from real life events?

LJ: It’s a hodgepodge really. Much of the collection from which these poems are taken deals with my mother’s death from Ovarian Cancer. I was 16 when she died, so I wasn’t drinking or playing bocce ball at the time, but when I came around to the grief, to the composition of this poem, I remembered her wake and sought it out as a vehicle. It wasn’t until I started trying to write toward the final couplet that the rest came around. As a teenager, it was difficult for me to reckon with my mother’s death, and it likely still is. It’s not something I talk about often, and when I do it’s generally when I’m asked to describe my book. I have a habit of dismissing or qualifying my grief, assuring the person who unwittingly asked “what’s your book about” that my mother died more than a decade ago and they are no longer obligated to apologize for it, as though grief could be measured by how many years have passed.

There’s a beautiful Cheryl Strayed essay about her experience losing her mother (“The Love of My Life” published in The Sun). A paragraph that continues to ring true: “Occasionally I came across people who’d had the experience of losing someone whose death made them think, I cannot continue to live. I recognized these people: their postures, where they rested their eyes as they spoke, the expressions they let onto their faces and the ones they kept off. These people consoled me beyond measure. I felt profoundly connected to them, as if we were a tribe.”

I find this same consolation in poems. The natural impulse as a person is to turn away from grief. The natural impulse of the poem is to turn toward it. It was through writing these poems that I was able to access the grief I could not speak. I’m getting to the point where I’ve almost lived as much of my life without my mother as with her, which makes me sad, but the sadness is no longer as paralyzing as it once was, which I suppose is what we mean when we talk about moving past grief. It never goes away, but under the right circumstances can change into something healthier.

I suspect I have not answered your question. I generally find myself subscribing to the three cardinal subjects for poetry: Love, Death, and War. These are the only real life events, with endless sub-subjects under each term’s very broad umbrella. Really, these three subjects could be one subject. Call it fragility. Whether the way you access this subject is based on factual circumstances or not (i.e. we didn’t really play bocce ball at my mother’s wake) is somewhat irrelevant to the poetry.

MH: Though it isn’t explicitly stated more than once in “Remembering the Old Testament While Walking the Dog” the color white come up over and over via a variety of images: cobwebs, frost, snow, smoke, oak, etc. What effect are you going for here?
 
LJ: I don’t think this was deliberate, though I like the idea of white smoke rising. I like the idea that a sheepdog pissing on a bush could be connected, if only through image, to the selection of a pope. I remember when I first showed this poem to a teacher at Hollins, Rick Trethewey, he said something along the lines of “this would really explain the whole sad pageant of human history.” I thought that was really funny.
 
MH: I love the lines, “Then, the whole valley/ smelled like a woodstove during a white winter, / smoke drifting for the sky like morning fog / lifting—What does it mean to be holy, to be / in one place thinking of another, to hear a voice // come from something burning, something alive / fizzling away?” Given the poem’s title, is it fair to assume that these lines are an allusion to the Biblical story of Moses and the Burning Bush? If so, can the final line “I stood still, listening, straining to hear the fire,” be interpreted as a type of prayer, a desire to hear the voice of God?
 
LJ: It’s definitely a reference to Moses and his burning bush, and I would certainly say the poem wrestles with faith (and its absence). I’m not sure the speaker is waiting to hear the voice of God necessarily, but maybe just trying to contextualize all of the sensuous aspects of the scene (dawn-hour on the Blue Ridge) with a disillusionment with his or her faith.
 
MH: All of these poems share a sense of theological questioning in the vein of Judeo/Christian faith. Where does this influence come from and how does faith affect your work as a poet in these poems and in your work in general?
 
LJ: I would say faith is a big part of my work. I’m the son of two ministers and suspect that my affinity for language was borne in my parents’ sermons and liturgies. That said, I’m part of what my mother would call “the holiday crowd.” Sundays I am more reliably bent over the New York Times crossword than a church pew. The aspect of religion that appeals to me is the same as the aspect of reading & writing that appeals to me: a call to attentiveness. At their best, literature and religion each ask their participants to pay closer attention to the world, to ask questions of it. Alternatively, I’ll quote the Gospels or Annie Dillard to reinforce this point. Mark 1:15: ““The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand”; or, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “These are our few live seasons. Let us live them as purely as we can, in the present.”
 
MH: “After the Ark” references the Old Testament story of Noah, but the word “Ark” also has other connotations within the Old Testament, particularly in reference to the Ark of the Covenant. This is interesting to me. Noah’s story ends with a covenant in itself. You also have other words in this poem that act in similar fashions such as “Genesis,” which, obviously, is where the story of Noah is found but is also a word that literally means “beginnings.” How do you see these ideas and different understandings of these words factoring into your readers’ interpretation(s) of this poem?
 
LJ: That’s a great read. For me, the Ark (Noah’s) is the controlling metaphor of the collection. It’s not an accident that smack-dab in the middle of the book there’s a poem called “Flood.” I was fascinated by the idea of aftermath, by the survival of what seems then apocalyptic. An ending as a beginning, and all of that.
 
MH: The other poems we’re featuring this week utilize consistent structures. This poem is also structured rather consistently; there are, however, just a very few dropped lines. Why this penchant for consistency? What’s going on with these dropped lines?
 
LJ: I’m pretty sure I borrowed this scaffolding idea for the lines from David Wojahn’s great book The Falling Hour. He uses drop lines to form what I call “fractured couplets.” I’m not sure if that’s what Wojahn would call them, but I’m grateful for his example. For me, it made sense a poem about the Ark would utilize couplets (two-by-two!), but the drop lines made it less clean superficially, which is one of the ideas with which the poem grapples: the distance between the Biblical stories and the messy lives of those individuals for whom these stories are bedrock. Returning to my first answer—I like formal poems that don’t necessarily seem like they’re formal poems, so the fractured couplets are just another avenue to that end.
 
On the same note, I think the three-line stanzas and the orphaned final line used in “Remembering the Old Testament…” were borrowed from Eric Pankey’s collection The Pear as an Example. The best place to find formal inspiration is in the work of others. The manuscript I’m currently working on explores the lives of a married couple and borrows its structure from Rita Dove’s very excellent Thomas and Beulah. One of the great joys of reading is seeing the way other poets approach formal decisions. We build our own poems on the backs of the poets we most admire.
 
Thanks again, Matthew, for taking the time to ask these questions, and for being a good advocate for poetry on the web.
 
MH: Thank you!
 
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Click here to read an interview with Luke Johnson at First Book Interviews 
 
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Click here to view Luke Johnson's reading at Hugo House
 
 
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Click here to view Luke Johnson's reading with Smartish Pace and 32 Poems




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Click here to buy After the Ark

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Luke Johnson



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