In spite of the risks involved in broad generalisation, let me start with a premise: while much of UK poetry seems to run scared of big abstract nouns, fearful of being sucked into their black hole of mish-mashed connotations and interpretations, American poetry seems to have long overcome such hang-ups and self-limitation.
Brad Johnson is no exception, as the title poem to his pamphlet, The Dichotomy Paradox, demonstrates. In fact, he meets those abstract nouns head-on. Like an elegy, descriptions and definitions of abstracts are inevitably destined to fail, so why not go for broke? – as Johnson does here:
Intimacy is a minor league knuckle baler
who strikes out eight before surrendering
the game winning home run.
Passion is a dog at the gate.
Commitment is a documentary
narrated by Morgan Freeman.
Such hyperbole can sometimes lead to short-cuts and slips that make the reader wince (“I love you like a target loves a gun” in ‘My Excuse’) but Johnson generally shows a knack for striking excellent, original notes. What’s more, all those abstracts are placed in the context of experience and society. ‘Elegy for Patriarchs’ is one such poem. Through concrete examples and self-deprecation, the poet makes an implicit point about the way American society is developing. The following snippets show his technique in action:
The men have gone who taught their boys to keep
Their hands up and always aim for the nose [ . . . ]
I could not even find the hammer
in the shed when my grandfather asked me
to retrieve it [ . . . ]
Art means nothing compared to life, cannot
adequately commemorate death.
This is poetry that breaks countless rules of contemporary verse yet somehow seems to work. Rhythms at first appear either mundane or clunky, yet in the end they come together. The abstract nouns continue exploding on page after page. Brad Johnson’s The Dichotomy Paradox will challenge the expectations of UK poetry readers, and that’s never a bad thing.
Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox asserts that the distance between two points can never be crossed because half the remaining distance is always left. Our own experiences disprove this, as do mathematical solutions. Still, it remains a promising metaphor for human relationships, and Brad Johnson has this knack for identifying memorable concepts that, in his best work, serve his poems well.
Thus, in ‘Hunting Rabbits’, the memory of a bungled kill is woven into the context of the narrator’s life, where, in some mysterious way, he becomes the rabbit. The poem ends:
Kneeling by the stream with my shotgun,
I listen for the beagle’s barks in the distance
and wait for the rabbit to return, knowing
they run in circles, scared so much they come
back to whatever they were running from.
This extract illustrates what I like about Johnson’s poetry: a tell-it-as-it-is straightforwardness; work that draws on the everyday; and a certain bleak humour. Again, in ‘City Sleeping Late’, celebratory shots fired into the air on New Year’s Eve have unforeseen, deadly consequences:
The bullets eventually arch
through the atmosphere and return to earth, gain
momentum and travel through windshields, billboards,
balcony gardens, skulls.
But ‘City Sleeping Late’ also demonstrates what came to irritate me about this pamphlet: after such an interesting beginning, it narrows down to focus in on a conventional romantic relationship in what to me seems an unexciting way. In fairness, 14 of these 15 poems have already been published elsewhere, and this is Johnson’s fourth pamphlet, so maybe I’m missing the point, or I’m just not his ideal reader. That said, lines like: “and the GNP has gone down/ faster than a virgin/ who thinks her boyfriend is leaving her” (‘The Dichotomy Paradox’) and “Still, she’s as sexy/ as a platinum Am Ex card” (‘Elegy for an afternoon’) and “If only I could recall what highway off ramp is yours,/ I’d empty the moon to deliver its contents to your door” (‘Apogee’) – leave me feeling there’s so much more this poet could be doing.
The opening, title poem of this collection highlights both the strengths and the potential pitfalls of Brad Johnson’s approach. On the one hand, the long lines and initially straight-talking style have you briefly wondering why it’s written as a poem, rather than, say, a piece of flash fiction. On the other hand, you quickly realise you’re being uncharitable, because the line-breaks are used beautifully to slow things down and build tension, and Johnson piles metaphor on metaphor, each more outlandish than the last, to convey the narrator’s increasing agitation – desperation, even:
The time between us is a fish without gills, an infant in a swing
and the space between contains I-95 from Miami
to Maine, 400 miles of Pennsylvania Turnpike,
the complete Karma Sutra except positions 22 through 26.
It’s something he does to good effect in several more poems, notably ‘My Excuse’ and ‘Apogee’, with the apparent simplicity of his approach spiced with all sorts of little surprises. ‘A Ton Of Bricks’ is great, too, cramming an awful lot into just seven lines:
I told him she told me she loved me
but loved in a way I wasn’t used to
being loved so he asked me if I’d prefer
to be struck down, randomly in the street,
by a ton of bricks or a ton of cotton balls.
Cotton balls, I said, certainly. A ton’s
a ton, you moron, he said. A ton’s a ton.
The problem comes when he strays onto the other side of the fine line he walks. A poem like ‘The Ring At The Bottom Of The Pool’ fails to satisfy in the same way because you feel you’re being told too much, and that relaxed, long-lined discursiveness falls over into outright prosiness.
But Johnson’s tone is consistent throughout, adding up to an accessible inventiveness that’s always entertaining, and frequently moving.