Hearing Eye, 2006 - £3.00

The ‘footprints’ made in this book aim for lightness—like the wind’s subtle rearrangements of sand—and in their most effective moments are able to treat the concerns of a painful world with deftness and subtlety:


          The women, almost toothless,

          laugh together in the last of the light

          before the night comes

          when they will be beaten

          by husbands who will say

          ‘In Africa this is how we love’


                   (‘African Women’)


Jennifer Johnson negotiates the emotional space of cultural dislocation very well. Most of the work draws on her ability to sketch the harshest truths quietly, leaving the acid of experience to bite only in the lingering seconds after we finish each poem. Criss-crossing the textures of Sudanese, Ghanaian and English lives in ‘Zambia Along English Lines’, she punctures the West’s lack of awareness with swift and brutal detail:


          Zebra munch the thatch

          from collapsed village huts,

          their owners dead from Aids.

          Their stripes are blurred

          by the relentless heat.


Johnson also uses the perspective of “a child with pink soles” to expose the brutality and indifference of much of the world. In ‘Sand’, for instance, there is the bitterness of an African farmer “who has made it to the west” losing touch with his culture, his homeland:


          I miss sand grains under my toenails,

          the ones that made up the sands

          my feet used to sink into.


Or in ‘Perception’, the slipperiness of language as a tool of liberation:


          The graphite in my pencil is made up

          of carbon layers that keep sliding

          as I use a language as untrustworthy

          as the broken treaties of our colonial past


Not every poem works, and some (particularly ‘Lost Directions’, ‘Time Unearthed’ and ‘Cornflakes Box in the Sudan’) are so quiet they feel half-lived-in and flat. But in the best of them there is an understated, bittersweet glory. Though “the bank of England was made from sugar” (‘Sweet Dreams’), its cultural coin is tinged with the coppery tang of blood.


James Roderick Burns