The Eyes the Window by Marci Rae Johnson (Sage Hill Press, 2013)
I'm a smart guy, but I'll admit to liking poets who tend to take a little more direct approach to their work. If I feel a poet intentionally creating obscuring prisms or building brick walls of her erudition, I tend to lose interest. Such poets are either engaged in some other conversation than that which interests me, or they are not trying to engage in a real conversation.
Marci Rae Johnson's The Eyes the Window is a rare exception. One actually senses that Johnson is literally feeling through the poetry, and yet she remains always just out of reach. It's a fascinating collection that makes you feel at once a witness to intimate moments and a stranger outside of true intimacy.
The first of the book's three sections introduces the "thought problem" of existence, or, more specifically, of consciousness. In the tradition of the Modernists, and before them the modern philosophers, Johnson begins with the mind reflecting upon itself, alone and therefore unable to substantiate its own existence:
To be. Infinitive. From the Latin infinitas as in the mind of God, the universe the space before and after. —"Showing Existence or Condition"
The self cannot, it seems, be in the infinitive. Memory, for instance, is too spotty and changeable. Johnson's search for the stable places of the self recall Stevens's "poem of the act of the mind." This is a book of somewhere's, maybe's, and could be's. Significantly, it is a book of desiring, and of desiring relationship. "To be loved" seems an attractive, plausible way to be.
But again, Johnson's work is so ambivalent. She writes in impressions and isolated thoughts that read something like watching Persona or L'Avventura, somehow working together into a whole through the desiring self. The reader stands right beside the speaker of her poems, breathing on her neck as she watches the waves on a lake outside her window. She confesses her desires, confesses her ambivalence, and then seems to recant her faith in everything she just said.
Is existence possible? Is love possible? In the second and third parts Johnson develops two journey narratives, one by car and one by train. Are these metaphors for the stale motions of a disintegrating love, or play spaces where love is possible just before it is impossible again? There is a heaviness to it all, and so many episodes of missed opportunity that I want to read it as the former, but there is such pathos in the desire that I want to believe these poems attempt to honor the brief moments of connection rather than mourn all the absence.
Johnson unabashedly commits the affective fallacy and contorts the world to projections of her own mind or emotions. These are poems in search of a real outside the self, after all, so it is appropriate that they presume a hyper-subjectivity. But this also allows her to playfully turn the banal into the beautiful. Quantum physics serves to multiply the possibilities of romance, road signs become subtle metaphors for poetry or for stages of relationship, and even Google suggests the conceptual poem, "28 Results for 'I.'"
Get this book and read it on a quiet morning with a cup of coffee. It will get inside you and linger and, what would not be the worst thing, unsettle you.
(Painting by Rene Magritte)