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Subterranean Red by Kathleen Johnson (review)

From: Western American Literature
Volume 48, Number 4, Winter 2014
pp. 479-480 | 10.1353/wal.2014.0035

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Reviewed by
Subterranean Red. By Kathleen Johnson. Norman, OK: Mongrel Empire Press, 2012. 61 pages, $14.00.

The poetry of Kathleen Johnson, a native Oklahoman of Cherokee and Scots-Irish ancestry, grasps onto snapshots of generational memory and rhythms of imagination to explore roots and home. Red earth, the central element of Johnson’s second poetry collection, Subterranean Red, underscores the connection of identity with the color of creative passion, place, and people. Some selected poems and characteristics from Johnson’s first poetry book, Burn, a 2009 Kansas Notable Book, continue to emit textual light in this collection.

At times, the characters in “Mixed Blood Messages,” the first of two sections in Subterranean Red, struggle in balancing light as a generative force with the darkness of unknowing. Many poems in this section end in darkness where characters often “look to the shadows” (6). “In Wildwood Cemetery” illustrates a desire for knowledge from ancestors who literally have returned to the earth: “tonight we share / the same November moonlight, / but we’re both still in the dark” (13). This section closes with a Cherokee legend, “Raven Mocker,” an extreme expression of darkness where a witch and “harbinger of fear and final dark” steals away the heart of the dying to extend her own life (17).

Photographs often drive the narratives of these poems and serve as entryways to memory reinforced by language. Here, relationships to kin and land serve as sources of survival and strength. For example, “Cherokee Grandfather” adds dimension to the past that creatively informs the present and serves as a guide for the future. However, the most lasting and impressionable relationships are not captured visually. “Wild Sand Plums” recalls songs in the “old language” about faith and survival traced back to Cherokee homelands in Georgia and shared through four generations of women (9). These ancestral lives remind [End Page 479] us about the importance of one’s relationship between physical and spiritual worlds.

Earth also looms in the second section, “Cimarron Breaks,” named for an ecoregion in southwestern Kansas that extends into central Oklahoma. The breaks reference the broken ground where Johnson’s great-great-grandfather, the poet known as the Pilgrim Bard, homesteaded. These breaks may also express the ruptures in Johnson’s family, such as her father’s alcoholism and infidelity, the destructive capacity of landscape noted in “Dust Bowl Diary, 1935” and “Tornado Warning,” or the cultural scarring and subsequent development that resulted from the Cherokee Strip Land Run in 1893. Rather than dwelling on these conflicts, however, Johnson continually stresses the importance of language as a source of regeneration: “But because we have your words, the wonder holds. / Nothing, not even prairie cyclones, can whisk it all away” (26).

Through vivid imagery, heavy symbolism, and skillful form, Johnson offers an appreciation of issues related to mixed-blood identity that defies neat categorization. Even though Subterranean Red is anchored to earth, Johnson’s impressions of the Oklahoma landscape through poetry reveal a sense of home that denies fossilization. She artfully engages in a homecoming of the imagination, a dynamic spiritual process that grows from a sense of connection.

Elizabeth Toombs
University of Oklahoma

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