Sunday, June 24, 2012

Kathleen Johnson's SUBTERRANEAN RED Explores Cherokee/Anglo Heritage

Kathleen Johnson’s second book of poetry alternates between images and verse, between free verse and prose, between Tsalagi (Cherokee) and Anglo traditions. She writes: “Poetry is the language spoken here/ in Gaelic, in English, in Tsalagi” (“Waiting for Winter Dark”). As more and more Americans are born with mixed heritages, this book is a field guide to survival. Johnson finds ways to inspire. She remembers Tsalagi people who were persecuted and exiled: “…the flame carried / on the trail to Oklahoma / still burns” (“Waiting for Winter Dark”).
 The strong red-on-black cover design sets up a crackling dynamism. Portraits of grandparents accompanying text create short narratives that evoke heritage in personal terms. The slippage of memory makes storytelling incomplete, so lyrics prevail in this book. The poem “Ghost” teeters between the worlds of the living and the departed. This is also a moment between present and past. Winter imagery is the backdrop, with snowfall like “a gauzy shroud.” The narrator looks at “… the days before, / the days after”; she wonders, “Who can wake this world?” It is a moment set in a void, yet sound continues. Sotto voce growls of a bear are part of this surreal place, and “She hears only her own / wretched, beautiful, lusty wail.”  Even when identity is removed from the narrator, she still has her individual sound, like the poet herself.


She has been drained of color
until invisible. Nobody
looks at her now.
She sees her life
behind her: a cold landscape
shot through with red.
There were the days before,
the days after.
Snow dusts the ground,
covers it like a gauzy shroud.
Who can wake this world?
A bear growls unheard
in the distance.
Ravens wheel in forbidding skies,
dark as her dreams.
She waits for a saving voice.
She hears only her own
wretched, beautiful, lusty wail.

 from Subterranean Red by Kathleen Johnson (Norman: Mongrel Empire Press, 2012, $14)
Kathleen Johnson is the great-great granddaughter of Kansas frontier poet Orange Scott Cummins, best known in the Gyp Hills area as the Pilgrim Bard. Her collection of poems, Burn, published by Woodley Press in 2008, was selected as a Kansas Notable Book in 2009. Her poems have been published in the Concho River Review, Cottonwood, Cherokee Writers from the Flint Hills of Oklahoma: An Anthology (Indigitronic), Kansas City Star, Kansas City Voices, The Midwest Quarterly, The Louisville Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, West Branch, Westview, and others. She is the editor and publisher of the New Mexico Poetry Review. Johnson received her BFA in history of art and MFA in creative writing from the University of Kansas. As a freelance book critic specializing in poetry, she published over sixty book reviews in The Kansas City Star between 2002 and 2009. After dividing her time between Kansas and New Mexico for many years, she lives in Santa Fe.