The Rough Beauty & Devotional Poetry of Kimberly Johnson

milan-popovic-537288-unsplashAbout halfway through Kimberly Johnson’s 2002 poetry collection, Leviathan With a Hook, you find yourself face-to-face with the themes that have since come to characterize much of her work: a moment that opens the world, a rich encounter with nature and transcendence, and a little hint of disturbing fire. It’s all right there in “Up Against It.” She admires, (I presume), her lover’s body, skin “distressing the curtain” as they pass in the moonlight.

Outside, the friction of crickets, moths

bump the windscreen, empty

branches rasp the shingles.

There are no words in the moment, only the desire for more. She concludes, “Let us draw near the fire and see/ what we are saying.”

There is no gentleness to Kimberly Johnson. Even the “lisp of skin and fabric” must share time with distressing curtains and rasping shingles. There’s a little bump and grind implied and overheard. She knows the erotic power of the unspoken moment. How the earth moves in tectonic grandeur while the silence holds. All you have to do is watch and listen. Draw close to the flame. Feel the burn.

I have come to know Johnson through two of her later collections of poetry, A metaphorical god and Uncommon Prayer, as well as through her editorial hand in the marvelous Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry. I picked up Leviathan in my ongoing effort to be Johnson completist. To my mind there is no finer devotional poetry than what she does in her work. God is everywhere within and without, though she laments the deficiencies of even her masterful tongue to capture it all.

O mouth clubfooted, clay improvident,

remain slack ever.       Seeing is prayer.

—“Te Deum”

Perhaps my favorite poem in this collection is one that arrives near the end, almost as summary of the book, which is indebted to Milton’s Paradise Lost as a ongoing source of inspiration. In “Blessed Word Apocalypse,” Johnson begins by observing a star in the sky that descends to become a lightning bug, which she holds in her hands. The insect becomes an angel, an emissary from some distant realm with a message for the poet.

The firefly, not unconform

to other shining globes, but nearer

unsealing fire upon my skin,

with hissing wings, writes Write.

And suddenly she is a vessel for all the light of heaven, made one with the hallowed universe:

Holy, holy, holy the star unmoored.

Holy are the branches, sending up their sighs.

Holy the slime of your belly.

Holy my rounded hand, a firmament of cells.

Kimberly Johnson

A worthy heir to Milton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and all the passionate questers of earlier times, Johnson is one of our best living poets, something only confirmed for me by this collection.

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