Luke Johnson is a fine young poet who I've come to know solely through the blog-o-sphere. I began following his blog, Proof of Blog, several years ago and have found a kinship in Luke's poetry as well.
Just about a week ago, Luke's first book, After the Ark, hit the shelves of bookstores and the desk of the Kangaroo. As many of you know, I've been reading it all week. A complex elegy on a mother's death, this is a book that must be read slowly, and given recent conversations about reading straight through or dipping in and out (here and here), I would advocate for reading this one front to back, as the progression of the speaker seems paramount to experiencing the book as a whole.
The speaker throughout the book is the son of two ministers, and in the acknowledgments, Luke thanks his parents for "their love, their bookcases, and their level-headed pulpits," identifying them both as reverends. So, the reader assumes the close confessional nature of the poems. The book is divided into three untitled sections, with each section being introduced by a triolet. I'm in awe of this tactic, as the triolet is not often connected with funereal themes in my mind. However, these three triolets do a fine job of setting the tone for each section.
The first, "Nor'easter," has as it's second and final line, "the highway buried, sky a grave." And we begin, then, with an image of death. The poems in the first section, take the reader through the illness of the mother, memories of youth, memories of a split in the parent's marriage that was healed, and the death; however, not in chronological order. This circular time line is crucial to the entire book, as it mimics the fluidity of time during a long illness, a death, and the aftermath. We begin with "Moving Day," a poem filled with ordinary domestic images as the speaker clears away "boxes of sermons / collected in her study" ... "prayers ready / to be gathered and stored away." He notes "the weight of her words" and that weight filters through every poem in the rest of the book.
The second section is formally interesting as well as being filled with more poems attempting to reconcile the grief of the son. There is the triolet and then a series of sonnets. There are nine sonnets, but between the fifth and the sixth is one that is purposely unfinished, "Box Kite" at only eight lines. That gaping space where the sextet is supposed to be becomes the formal metaphor for the grave and the unsayable fact of grief. The speaker of these poems has much to reconcile: his mother's death, his own residual anger with her over a fracture in the parent's marriage, his position as the child of two ministers, how to help his father cope, and how to move through the world now as a motherless son. In "Vulture Tree," the sonnet opens "We were never so holy, and apples / in the ministers' orchard rot the same." Of all professions, perhaps we believe ministers, and by extension their families, most capable of dealing with the great tragedies of life, and yet, these poems reveal that human nature is human nature no matter a person's profession or calling.
Finally, in the third section, the poems become wider, deeper, more exploratory as the speaker moves out into the world after the death. The poem "Manse" begins "It might be easier to blame the dead / for disrepair... ." This honest admission floors me as it also hints at the ease with which we often blame our parents for our own faults left unrepaired. The speaker, though, resists this, still searching for a way to make sense of human nature. The section and the book conclude with the title poem "After the Ark," which weaves together the religious questions and the familial ones that have embedded themselves throughout the book. In this poem, the speaker contemplates the Ark story, and how "scores of sinners" ... "would've drowned in what my mother showed me // of God's love, the ever-lasting compassion / too definite / to be human... ." He struggles with this: "how // my mother left my father and I still don't know / how to forgive her, if I need to -- Genesis // missed these unpaid fares... ." The poem ends with a devastatingly true couplet:
It's up to us to grow gills, to learn to breathe
here where the flood has become the body.
I applaud Luke's generous work for managing to be both religious and domestic, without being high-handed or overly sentimental. Above all this book is an honest account of difficult love.
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After the Ark
NYQ Books, 2011