“When thundering through the heavens I hear the B-2 Stealth Bomber—it’s elusive grace as it banks trailing fractals from its skin, its clandestine maneuvers, its trinitarian aerodynamism—I think of God.” (38)
Spend some time in Kimberly Johnson’s 2014 poetry collection, Uncommon Prayer, and you’ll think of God in some unlikely images—a bug-zapper, a corpse flower, a sonic boom on Saint Chuck Yeager’s Day. But I dare you to go away unaffected. Johnson is the rare poet who consistently evokes for me the presence of the barely-cloaked divine.
I keep a dictionary close by when reading Johnson. Sometimes it’s for the botanical references since she is immersed in the cultivated world, particularly that of the Mountain West where she lives. But she loves to roll around in the garden of words, as well, sending me to the Webster’s to see just what she means by comparing a budding tulip to “a leggy dishabille in lipstick” (3).
She’s worth the effort.
There’s a liturgical underpinning to Johnson’s work, both here and elsewhere. Her 2008 collection, a metaphorical god, takes form from the season of Lent. Uncommon Prayer plays with old prayer collections like the Book of Hours. One cycle of poems here, “Siege Psalter,” uses the NATO phonetic alphabet [Alpha-Bravo-Charlie] as an organizing principle. Delta inspired the meditation on the stealth bomber above.
But the God-thirsting Johnson is no ethereal saint. Her best poems are fully embodied, throbbing with the fierce passions of being alive. In ‘Pitbull’ the titular beast mocks his owner for her cultured restraint:
O frail, O small, if you want me
To love you, take off your muzzle
Of words and fang this pig’s ear of a world,
Your mouth, for once, filled only with your teeth. (22)
In ‘Wreckingball’ the implement of destruction becomes a rampaging lover, undoing solid brick walls with its explosive kiss:
To dust, all my beloveds must wish
To have gone unregarded. What do
I wish for? The end of love. (23)
A broken metronome scandalizes “well-tempoed” society with its rebellious syncopation—Old Reliable “become an undependulum.” (24) Perhaps it is not broken at all, but merely liberated to escape the strictures of ordered time.
Such subversive pleasures in the service of a greater devotion to the wild and holy God are what make Johnson one of my favorite poets. She knows by the traces that some presence has passed through. Like the sonic boom that arrives too late to see its source, yet leaves behind
bellknocking bonejar of noise, a jolt
to all wavelengths, a tremor through the pavement
tripping car-alarms and dog-howls to the proof
that something happened. (12)
—‘A Nocturnall Upon Saint Chuck Yeager’s Day’