by Matthew Minicucci
I’ve noticed people talking about the weather like it’s complicated. Vortex. Vortices. All the plurals I’d never considered. From the perspective inside my little red car, it just strikes me as cold. So cold, in fact, that ice is crystallizing inside the vehicle. So I scrape. I scrape the inside of the damn windows, then the outside of them, then the inside again, cursing as if my anger alone might melt away the frost. How do you, I ask, sneak in through these tight rubber seals? As it turns out the car’s defenses are near collapse.
Marci Rae Johnson begins her debut collection, The Eyes the Window, with a consideration of collapse. She starts with a quote from Gary Zukav, the American author and spiritual teacher, and ends with probability. How time affects the speaker (and all of us) is merely wave function. Connections between people entirely colloidal, dispersed in this sticky, complicated soup.
How time affects the relationship of all things to all other things is a delicate subject. Or a bludgeoning one, for many authors. Johnson is intricate in her straightforwardness on these issues. There’s a tremendous courage to her honesty and self-awareness, something missing in most contemporary poetry, which (in my experience) delineates passions and the vicissitudes of fortune with brightly colored paper; the armor of complicated words.
There is no such armor here, only windows from which we can scratch a thin layer of ice. Take an example from the first 10 lines of her poem “What Shape is the Universe?”
I am moving
The short lines give the poem a sense of choppy surf, dragging dangerous undertow, conversely pushing and pulling the characters from each other. Johnson’s consideration and conceit for the poem is large: the universe’s expansion equals the cold death of all things, and we are not exempt from this truth. However, the artfulness and the needling simplicity of the thought prevents me from arguing. What better way to consider the dissolution of a relationship than through the dissolution of all things? Johnson’s greatest gift in this collection is that she doesn’t invent the analogy, she just reminds you that it’s always been there.
The author continues her consideration of loss in the brilliant second section of the book, which takes the form of a standard road narrative, broken down into the core emotions implicit (if you’ll forgive the play on words) in the breakdown. Her first poem in the section, “Winding Road,” begins:
We drove on through the night hoping
to see something beautiful in the morning
That hanging exon of hoping devastates the reader, pushing a particular pathos to the poem that brilliantly sets the tone for the section. Further on she writes:
We hadn’t even touched. I wanted to reach
across the seat and pull you close
but you were focused on the road. I wanted
to believe you knew where we were going.
Repetition here, in the consideration of I wanted pushes this tone further, and the enjambment of to believe indicates to us, as readers, the understood false hope of the speaker throughout this journey.
There’s a sense of the subjunctive, that mood-governing possibility or emotion associated to something that has not (and may never) occur. Given the considerations of the first poem of the first section “Showing Existence or Condition,” I do not think this is far off from the truth. I might even jump back into my training in Attic Greek, long ago now, and call this the optative, the mood which indicates a hope, or wish, as in the final lines of Johnson’s poem “Pavement Ends:”
I said maybe this is where
we see something beautiful.
Certainly the lines present a sort of conditional, one absolutely governed by the subjunctive mood. But the tone underlying the statement also has the feel of an understated hope, one perhaps unbelievable even to the speaker, and we pull this muted emotion throughout the rest of the section.
In this way, the second section works as a drogue for the book as a whole. Not an anchor in the standard sense that would only moor it to some solid place. But instead a long drag that unfurls behind and slows us down enough to keep the boat perpendicular against any oncoming wave; any impending and looming vortex, vortices, or otherwise.
The third and final section of the book is comprised of a long poem in seven parts. The tone mirrors, in many ways, the construction of the second section. The difference is instead of the characters moving from one place to another, almost in an attempt to get away from some pressing beast in pursuit, they are more stationary, watching the world around them collapse.
The language has a dreamlike quality, and in “i.,” we move back to the window and eyes that we began with. Johnson begins:
Start with the window
the window the highway
the collapsing highway
Again, we see the grammatical construction present in the title: two specific nouns, both with definite articles, and presented as a pair without comma. This time the window pairs with the highway, which feels natural immediately after section two.
Johnson moves on in the section to pair the confounding logic of a dream, and, again, the dissolution of something that had once seemed solid, as in “ii.”
I dreamed about the house
with the holes in the floor
same as last time.
True to the tone of the collection, tremendous emphasis is placed on a very straightforward, specific language that simply describes the object or action. Also true to the collection, the definite article plays a huge role in presenting the commonplace as a definite thing, as opposed to using the indefinite article, which might suggest a house, rather than the house we see here, one the speaker cannot seem to shake.
A considerable amount of religious imagery makes its way into the final section, suggesting the construction of The Seven Days, as the section is named, is not done without knowledge of its place in Genesis. Though here, the general descriptions bring about more of a Revelation, concentrating on the conflagration at the end of all things, rather than a movement towards rest. In “vi.” Johnson pushes this connection aggressively, writing:
It was the sun coming up
from the lake and the lake
was burning with all
the colors of fire
maybe this is the end
of the world. You said
I don’t know maybe
it’s only the beginning
Again, emotion is presented like a swallowed stone, and the reader sinks along with the speaker. Our storm moves to fire, and it seems to cover the landscape of this final section; the notion that, perhaps, creation and destruction are not so mutually exclusive.
Johnson completes The Seven Days, and the collection, with her own re-telling of Lot, though without any final word on the damage it does to the speaker. We, it seems, are left to glean that ourselves. Fitting, too, that in Genesis 19, Lot’s wife is never named, and we could easily conflate her with our unnamed speaker.
Again, we begin with the window, and move to
you said don’t look back. Don’t
look back you said and I turned
to face you.
In Genesis, of course, Lot’s wife looks back at the conflagration, against the command of angels ushering her away, and is turned to a pillar of salt. Here, the conflagration, the city so utterly destroyed, is the you, and we are only left to wonder at the consequences of this defied order.
Johnson’s greatest triumph in the collection is that there is no subterfuge to her speaker. Each moment is presented as is, without explication, as a sort of observational record. And there’s no reckoning, either; no grand considerations of morality as a balance sheet; this therefore that in return. Instead we always come back to The eyes the Window, which (despite their best efforts) cannot lie. In fact, they have no such volition. They take whatever new storm presses against them, these continuing vortices, and endure.
Discussed in this essay:
The Eyes the Window by Marci Rae Johnson. Sage Hill Press. 2013. 89 pages. $15
Matthew Minicucci is the author of the chapbook Reliquary (Accents Publishing, 2013). His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from numerous journals, including The Cincinnati Review, Crazyhorse, The Gettysburg Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and West Branch, among others. He has also been featured on Verse Daily. He currently teaches writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign.
Photo: Lot’s Wife by JoTB