Friday, January 30, 2009

The Velocity of Escape by Jim Johnstone, a Review

The Velocity of Escape
Guernica Editions Inc
ISBN 978-1-55071-292-6
52 pages, $15.00

Jim Johnstone’s first book of poetry, The Velocity of Escape, while anorexic to the touch, is full-bodied with muscular visceral verse. The collection exudes the ambience of a florescent-flooded coroner’s o.r. populated with living entities.

Johnstone is peculiarly armed with an M.Sc. in Reproductive Physiology which inhabits his vision and displays itself throughout this volume. He has an uncanny ability to extract and examine our human predicament from his unique residence in the unit verse.

On my first readthru I noticed that Johnstone has a fetish. It’s unclear whether the fetish sent him into lab work, or that it developed from his intimacy with the sushi under our skin. His most popular words were ‘blood' (used 12 times) followed with ‘wrist’ (used five times), which often go hand in hand, a sort of twinning, which also threads through this volume.

In Irving Layton’s forward to The Tightrope Dancer, he wrote, “The poet, either through genes or genius, is poised on a rope stretched tautly between sex and death. The major poet dances on the tightrope; the minor poet walks warily across it.”

Johnstone is a poet who confidently walks a tightrope stretched between the dead and the living, between tissue and tears, between blood, bone, bruises and “you.” Interestingly, he has de-gendered much of his poetry, minimizing the use of she he for the more ubiquitous, more generic you, your, yours.

Aesthetic distance, detachment, conscious or not, Johnstone cleverly depersonalizes a good portion of his poetry, as if his mind goes through the cleansing procedures before wielding the scalpel to cut flesh or pen inkscars on paper. His poems have an austere precision which makes me feel queasy; it happens when truth is adroitly cut to the bone.

I especially enjoyed The Afternoon’s Cadaver, a poem discomfiting as an autopsy report. I can see the glint in his eye gleaming on the blade as it slices into a human was. He makes me vividly aware of my personal destiny which is closer to me than to him, I’m much older. Johnstone makes it clear how I will be tabled, punctured, drained, latexed fingers prophylatically protected against a stew of potential infectiousness indelicately dancing duties on insensitive flesh.

this afternoon’s cadaver can’t shrink away
from the approach of my blade,
destiny clearly outlined in black marker

an instruction to cut here, scissors rifling
the pages of vanity fair
for a collage of heads, neckties, and shoulders.

flesh yields to my first incision like wet sand,
identity receding from your throat
in a tide of cracked bone,

crumpled paper glued above vocal chords,
the beginnings of collapse
in a sound proof room.

there’s something fierce in your preservation,
the burn of crude formaldehyde
in inadequate skin, the story you tell

when opened up: there were cigarettes after sex,
nights you refused to kiss
saying “i want to leave” again and again.

Johnstone’s poetry brings me to cool places, addresses me in chilling science, reminds me of all the warm things inside my sagging stooping self.

The poem. Grasshopper, describes a night out with ‘you’ in a nearby wood on a calm evening, a bonfire, some smokes, whiskey, laughter and then,

the snap of your ankle
bones releasing along a break
you collapsing to the sober ground

Johnstone is the white-jacketed poet witnessing

your bruises
understand the journey
have travelled beneath
your skin like an unlovely

In another poem, Johnstone describes how

the needle plunges down
sleep crawls into his arm
with beads of anaesthetic

his body is weighted
to cement blocks
bound and shoved

Johnstone inhabits areas of life and death as if they were good neighbours with each other and in the marvellous poem, Conjoined Dreams, he brings it to us in an all too uncomfortably familiar way.

that divides the room

separating the dead
from the next miracle.

There is a thread running through this anthology of poems – twins. They appear often. They have tattooed themselves deeply into Johnstone’s sensibilities. They are the miracle and death is a veil away.

Johnstone brings us into cool rooms, windowless rooms, bright white light, stainless steel, scientific jargon subjected to poetry. He is the cool ghoul that brings us to understand that he works among plumbers and carpenters of flesh, a place where maimed miracles are restored to walk amongst us again.

Johnstone’s poetry brings us to the maternity window where we press our faces all googly-eyed to the glass, then turns our heads to the mortuary window for our destiny.

Not once did I ever imagine that an autopsy report could be poetic, but Johnstone does it with acute aplomb. I’m looking forward to more from this unique voice in poetry. For Jim I dedicate this pinwheel:

No comments: