Uncommon Prayer by Kimberly Johnson
A review of Uncommon Prayer by Kimberly Johnson.
Uncommon Prayer, Kimberly Johnson, Brian Larsen
To enter Kimberly Johnson’s third book of poems, Uncommon Prayer, is to enter a hothouse of language. In the way the hothouse atmosphere, the breathable air, hangs heavy and dense; in the way the greenery teems with apparent perspiration; and in the way the glass structure both fogs over with moisture and filters light, Uncommon Prayer, is composed of thickets of dense verbiage twisting upon itself; words and phrases which glisten under pressure; and linguistic registers which both resist and complement each other.
Take for instance, the book’s opening poem, “Matins for the Last Frost,” which immediately demarcates both the material and the style of the book. “Patient in their dark hibernacle / wait the twinned lobes of the tulip bulb / hanging like a semicolon / in the endless sentence of winter;” the inanimate world playfully yet astutely brushes up against our human, linguistic relation to it. The tulip bulbs suggest simultaneously both a furthering and a pause in the syntax of nature, not yet the “leggy dishabille in lipstick” which will emerge from the bulb’s “paper tunic.” The long, twisting sentence of the first elevens lines not only perform the seeming “endless sentence of winter,” but also calls back to the title of the first section of the book, “Book of Hours”—the often elaborately decorated prayer-books written primarily in Latin.
Indeed, just as medieval manuscript illustration (one of which graces the cover of the book) combines at times the sacred with the profane, the jovial with the serious, and the natural with the supernatural, Uncommon Prayer seems to take as its project a rendering of the nexus of such junctures. The word “nexus” here I use perhaps as Johnson—who has produced a delightful translation of Virgil’s Georgics—might: aware of the Latinate origin of “nexus”—meaning “to bind”—but also with awareness of its more recent usage meaning “the core” or “the center.” Consider how the following lines from her poem “Nonesuch” bind [End Page 16] together the inanimate with the animate to examine the core of a relationship which reads, by the end, as both sacred and profane: “Not this: you the urge and I the page. / Not this: you the harrow, blades sharp / to turn the fallow field of me. Not the wheel / that turning winds the carded wool of me.” If the hothouse for an illustrator—that which constitutes not only the container but also the innovation and production of their work—consists largely of the confines of physical space and physical resources, for Johnson, the limits of connection, language, and poetics constitute the hothouse of poetry.
Never one to shy away from her influences, the poems in Uncommon Prayer, even more so than in Johnson’s previous collections, often read like a mash-up of the linguistic registers and poetics of Hopkins, Donne, Milton, and contemporary lingo. Consider the following lines: “I’m done with this buck and wing, the shuck and jive / Of marking time for you. A spring sprung, / A gear-catch at each lefthand lurch, and zing!—” (“Metronome”). Such amalgam of linguistic registers, coupled with a proclivity for Latinate sentence structures, risks, perhaps, comparisons of Johnson’s poetics to the twisted sentence structures of Milton, but in Uncommon Prayer Johnson seems more comfortable balancing dense, Latinate, formations with contemporary styles than in her earlier books. The first six lines of “Orange Tree,” the first poem of the second section of the book, “Uncommon Prayers,” may serve as example:
My everlasting sun!—Hung like tungsten fruit from the ceiling vault
Of the orangerie, my ever-clement sky.Let December crash its petals at the glass,
Let January clench the world downTo its heartworm, let March savage like hatchets
Though the poem initially mimics the sonic and syntactical structures of Donne’s “The Sun Rising,” it merges quickly into a rhetorical construct—the repeated “let”—reminiscent of Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno.” Johnson, however, is never tied to the tradition. Instead, the poems in Uncommon Prayer constantly “make new” the language of her predecessors.
When considering Johnson’s poetics, however, perhaps the most significant section of the book is the third and final section, “Siege Psalter,” which showcases her greatest development. “Siege Psalter” is series of twenty-six prose poems which employ as titles the NATO phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc.), forming an abecedarian series which forefronts transmission of language. The first poem of the series, “Alpha” risks perhaps the most of any of them, beginning with the lines, “As in top dog. Make that top god. Because you are nothing if not fond of wordplay, framing your absolutes in paradox and parable.” Johnson’s use of the already overused and clichéd play between “dog” and “god” is jarring, especially in the first line, and appears, frankly, a bit unsophisticated for such a poet of Johnson’s talent. The payoff, however, is perhaps worth the risk. In this poem—and indeed throughout the third section of the book—Johnson employs shifting personal pronouns, such as the “you” in the first poem, to refer at times to the speaker, an “other,” and to a conception of deity: reminiscent, in ways, of the complicated persona in John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. In “Alpha” the effect is an exploration which first criticizes and then seeks to redeem both the speaker to whom such mundane clichés occurs and to a deity who appears at times absent for caring.
I return to the poems in Uncommon Prayer for just such risks, always firmly situated in the material as they are, the heft of language, and the amalgam of poetics and poetic impulses expertly wrought. In short, the book makes me acutely aware of the world that surrounds us—a hothouse of verbal and physical potential. [End Page 17]
Brian Larsen has work published or forthcoming in North American Review, The Southeast Review, and The Found Poetry Review.