Poetry Porch: Poetics


From Mist To Shadow by Robert K. Johnson. Ibbetson Street Press, 2007. $12.00 ISBN 9780979531309 (paper).

Reviewed by George Kalogeris

Robert K. Johnson is the author of seven books of poetry, two works of nonfiction (one on Francis Ford Coppola, the other on Neil Simon), and has had a selection of his poems included in several poetry collections. The title of his most recent book of poems, From Mist To Shadow, is particularly well chosen in the way that it illustrates the merit of his aesthetic: lucid clarity of spare language sharply focused on life’s bewildering opacities. The title also captures the tenderness in Johnson’s tone, as he looks unwaveringly at events that have shaped the arc of his life, from the mists of childhood to the shadows of late middle age, and records the deepening mystery of pain and joy at the heart of his identity. The poem “Still Life” ends with the following image of encroaching darkness:

    The walkways, shoveled free
    Of the snow that covered them,
    Point a path from street to door
    While the motionless shadows of trees
    Press against each house.

Here the walkways “shoveled free” (one might have expected “clear”) of the snow is a lovely momentary exposure to light and a lifting spirit, but this clarity also serves to render the eerie pressure of the stillness of the trees in more distinct outline, as they “press” their shade against “each house,” inexorably and inescapably, as the force of “each” implies. The sense of entrapment is clinched, and cinched, by the placement of “press” and “house” at either end of the line, which, in their taut contradistinction, heightens the sense of encroaching shadow. Furthermore, the trochaic shift in rhythm darkens the earlier trochaic line (Point a path from street to door) and enacts the “press” of the snow against the house in a psychologically more pressing way. And because the speaking tone has not been elevated for emphasis, the levelness of the voice is just right for the flat, still shadows cast in this moment of hesitant light. Shadows that spread as “trees” cast their shade back over “free” in Johnson’s delicate use of slant rhyme.

Another poem exemplifies Johnson’s control of imagery and tone while narrating a scene from a familiar movie.

    (Jack Nicholson as Robert Dupea)

    The ashen face of his father,
    Mute and near rigid after
    A stroke, confronts his face;

    He cannot not stare back
    Nor evade the sight of himself
    In his father’s eyes.

                           What then could he do—
    Could any man do—except
    Fall to his knees and cry.

Here the tone is starkly and powerfully established in the opening line, where “ashen” is separated from “father” by the poignant placement of “face”—central to the line and crucial to the poem in its double meaning. In facing the stricken countenance of his father the son is being forced to face himself. “Near rigid” and “mute” intensify the deathly pallor of “ashen,” and, while suggesting that the father may die at any moment, also imply the wrenching flicker of an attempt to communicate. The off-rhyme of “father” and “after” registers the shock of what has happened, as the son realizes that his father will never be the same, after the stroke. “A stroke” arrives forcefully after the line break, and is immediately followed by a comma, as it registers the stun of the son’s first wince from his father’s affliction. And it’s here that the second shock arrives, as the son must “confront” his father’s face directly. For a son to confront his father is one thing, and part of the expected experience that comes with growing up. But to confront the blankness of a father’s face paralyzed by stroke is to encounter an unshakeable immobility, more heart-stopping in its resistance because it is utterly involuntary. The semi-colon after the second mention of “face” allows for just the right pause; anything more would have tipped the line towards melodrama. The partial pause is a wonderful example of the way the poem relives the mercilessness of the moment, as if the punctuation itself momentarily flinched, but like the boy couldn’t tear its ongoing attention away from the terrible sight. “He cannot not stare back” is excruciatingly equivocal, since, for an instant, it might refer to either the father or the son: the son who finds it too painful to stare back at the father, and the father filled with emotion but whose face is frozen in blankness. The double negative of “cannot not” is the shattering mirroring of this double reflection’s recoil. But the sentence continues, ending only at the father’s eyes, in which the son cannot “evade” his own image as it is reflected there, nor can the son get away from the “sight of himself” frozen in his father’s eyes—the final paralyzing effect of the stroke. The last stanza is deeply moving in its convincingly human understanding of helplessness: when there’s nothing to be done, “any man,” and even an everyman as resourceful as Jack Nicholson, is reduced to tears. “To fall on his knees and cry” is not the same as falling to one’s knees to pray, though in that moment the poetry perceives the child as the wounded father of the man.

These exquisitely cadenced poems, with their iambic and anapestic rhythms that seem to breathe so naturally within the speaking voice of the lines, remain open to a wide range of experiences even as they keep their distance, sometimes with wry humor, in the face of sickness and loss. And yet, these poems are most moving perhaps in their admission of what can’t be put into words. In “While Turning the Pages of My Alumni Magazine” Johnson is stunned to see the name of a former lover listed among the deceased. As soon as he recalls the sound of her voice during a moment of intimacy, the words they spoke have already begun to fade:

    Where did we go to park? Some place
    Where the echo of collapsing waves
    Often muffled our soft words.

Finally, in “Words Unheard” Johnson describes his distress at not being able to hear the endearing words his wife whispers to him in bed, language that evades him because he is not wearing his hearing aids, though the terms of love are felt in the very fiber of his poetry.