Review by Stephen Massimilla
In Degrees of Freedom, Nicholas Johnson displays a liberating knack for navigating a labyrinth with no exit. His tone is sophisticatedly colloquial, his purport archly sincere. It is truly a testament to the quality of his work that I can describe it only in oxymoronic terms.
The book opens with the lyric “Back Home,” which at one point evokes “no good reason to go back / where you came from, or to go on, and no / possibility of doing either.” The poet then takes us revolving “on the way in or out” (“In the Dark”) toward a revelation of how “so many pathways, back and forth, make clear / the way they came and went” (“In the Woods”). How is that for a “postmodern” take on Dante’s path? Still, the poet is taking us where we need to go.
Johnson’s creativity and craft are on display in a range of both traditional and free-verse forms, and through his presentation of engagingly original characters and personae—ranging from a “smart-aleck” bar-fly (literally a fly) to sharp-toothed monkeys. His facility at working with a mix of forms and characters is complemented by his skill at integrating his cutting revelations: “…You don’t feel like / a lover. More like a wasp / circling a bowl of ripe pears, full / of stinging assertions and needing / to do something with all that mud” (“In the Dark”). Other cutting and revelatory insights include: “… I know what it looks like / In the back of your mind? / Let’s face it. It isn’t a pretty / picture. I wouldn’t hang that one / In the Whitney” (“Temporary Help”).
In fact, in this organic network of poems, every line is a cicatrix. The lovely visual and aural tones of the sonnet “Blue” belie the evocation of “a sentence” in the sky “for a wound that wounds us more,” one that opens, breathlessly, on “enough blue to throw a whole life into the air.” This evocation of an aerial burial is echoed by the paradoxical finale of the villanelle “Alone”: “I think they’ll find me buried here / between these walls of snow and air.” The speaker often reflects on the Abyss, only thereby to reach, ironically, for the heavens. Responding to Plath poems such as “I Am Vertical” (and perhaps to Wilde’s “We are all in the gutter….”), the voice of a later poem retorts, “I’m digging a hole so deep that even in daylight I can see the stars” (“Going Down”).
Everywhere, as a matter of fact, evocations of earth and sky, entrapment and freedom, somberness and humor, are irreverently yoked. I mean deep somberness and footloose humor. Johnson’s dark explorations can be outrageously funny. In “Facts of Life,” he references a congeries of strange and little-known, often morbid “facts” to enable new perspectives on life, death and our place in the universe. “It takes 32 feet of rope to hang the average man,” the speaker announces. He goes on to inform us about where a bubble breaks when a bullet passes through it, what astronomers can tell us about our fate, and how “Coffee drinkers are less likely to commit suicide. / They add up columns of numbers fast and accurate like me. / I know where dust comes from and I know where it goes. // But why does every rainbow have an arc? Things start / piling up,” he complains, listing “broken promises, a sharp blade / in a tube of lipstick, red eclipses, virtual reality ….”
In many a piece, such as “Poor Company,” I enjoy simply being carried along by the voice, never guessing what turn the poem will take: “My wife just died / I told him. / I don’t know why he asked. I don’t know why I told him / my wife died. Maybe I was glad. / Maybe I didn’t have a wife” (and the surprises keep unwinding, as in the next moment, when the speaker adds, “Never or / not anymore.”).
Indeed, every proposition, however mordant, provides grounds for unexpected degrees of freedom, as in “Temporary Help”: “You can sink your teeth / into anything. Have you ever thought about biting your dentist? I did / once. It’s a liberating experience.” Still, we are reminded that true liberation comes at a less temporary price: “even the rabbit / gnaws off / its paw rather than / be caught in a trap” (“Talking to Strangers”).
Here life is never a painless occasion, but it is one worth rising to repeatedly. For all Johnson’s considerable cleverness, wit and skill, what comes through is irrepressible empathy and tenderness, all with a hard-nosed eschewal of mere sentimentality or crankiness. Johnson references “black secrets”; he also mentions “the things you love,” and counsels “take a deeper breath” (“Smoking Villanelle”).
Past the meridian of the book, a sonnet about a gutted, shot-up truck being reclaimed by upstate woods follows a brother sonnet (“Country Life”), in which the speaker proposes, “Let’s go shoot some theories full of holes.” Since this line rhymes with another about a barn “already full of holes,” and since rhyming a word with itself is also a way of exploding the rhyme, the poet fulfills the terms of his formal contract by taking aim at it, as well as the reader’s theories. Even in the formal choices he makes, Johnson speaks, in spirit, as an informed nonconformist, a conscientious outsider, an individualist as a matter of principle.
On that note, in this book, no road worth taking is simply safe or pure, nor is the path to emancipation that of a righteous partisan or glib apologist. Johnson’s position is too profound, forthright and unassuming for that. “If I loved honor more, there’d be more dead people.” So begins “Point of Honor,” which concludes, “I’ve borne my share of coffins down, but if I had to / choose, I’d rather listen to a band that no one had to march to.” The music and message of this collection embody that credo.
Johnson does not shy away from speaking his mind, nor does he preach. His appeal, out of that lonely region of strife that defies absolutes and absolutism, is less strident, more stirring. It is imaginatively down-to-earth and uncannily undeterred. Complex truths inseparable from their spoken expression ring brightly from the pages of Degrees of Freedom—the inimitable Nicholas Johnson has spoken.