Luke Johnson
Texas Review Press

Reviewer: Frank Paino

In 1308, Italian poet and philosopher, Dante Alighieri, began writing his magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, an unforgettable trilogy of canticles in which Dante is led by the great poet, Virgil, along a path that begins with a graphic journey through nine torturous circles of Hell, proceeds through Purgatory (where suffering is tempered by the knowledge that salvation is assured), and on to the ultimate joy of Paradise itself.

But what if Dante had been born in 1980’s America? How might he envision the journey of a single male soul as it makes its way through life’s “dark wood” toward a future that promises a kind of joy once deemed impossible?

I daresay he might well begin where poet Luke Johnson, in his first full-length collection, Quiver, starts – which is the inferno that rages in the hearts of boys and men raised in a culture where machismo is celebrated as a birthright, and tenderness is scoffed at as suiting only women, children, or so-called “sissies.”

In this contemporary hellscape, guidance is too often provided by fathers who have themselves been wounded by other men (including their own fathers) so that they become progenitors of more violence, wrath, and a type of hypersexuality that encourages the objectification of women as little more than vessels for male lust.

Like a modern-day Virgil, Johnson walks with us as we traverse harrowing and vividly brutal landscapes where his father once “tied / a drunk man to a chair / and snapped the first four fingers / on his left hand.” This same father is seen later in the collection with “one hand strangling a neck.”

Other circles of this hell describe the violence of a boy named Smitty, who once cut a fetal mouse open “with ballpoint precision,” the poet himself, who, as a seven-year-old, “smothered a frog and fed each leg / to [his] quivering sister,” or:

… the boy who nearly died
               the day his daddy found

him fondling men
                    beneath the bleachers
                              for forty dollars
                                        & tied him to a tree

all night in wretched rain…

Little wonder, then, that the poet’s own son “swats a finch with his bat / and laughs,” or, in the harrowing “Dark,” contemplates a nest filled with hatchling robins while their weary mother tries to rest, a moment which prompts Johnson to utter this warning:

Your hands will itch

to squeeze, my son, snap
their necks and be
done with it.

But I’m warning you

not to. You will play
that image again and again
and your hands

will fill with want
again and again
and for forty years

you’ll feel her hover, asking for the dead.

But if that’s all this poet had to say, the collection, though engaging and skillful, would be little more than a beautiful (if harrowing) amplification of the caveat Dante describes as being emblazoned over Hell’s gate, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Fortunately for us, despite the myriad of horrors perpetrated both upon and by him, Johnson refuses despair, turning, instead, in his poem, “This is what it looks like, son,” to this ravishingly tender address:

I’m asking you
to set the weapon down
and look toward the Pacific.

That storm coming close,
is big enough to rip this beach and swallow it.
High tide will swell and splash

over the barriers
built to guard the street.
Perch will fill medians like manna.

The poor will come collect their rations.
Wave hands toward thunder and praise it.
I’m asking whether you’d

like to keep gazing at records of lost time,
or undress and wade these choppy waters—
bodies weightless as breath.


At the heart of Dante’s Inferno, Satan, imprisoned in ice at the center of a frigid lake, gnaws eternally on the bodies of Brutus and Cassius (the two men most instrumental in the assassination of Julius Caesar) and Judas Iscariot (who betrayed Jesus with a kiss in Gethsemane). He gnaws, yes. But he also sheds bloody tears, suggesting, perhaps, even those deemed the worst among us possess a modicum of goodness. And so it is with Johnson who comes to understand his father, for all the abuse he delivered to others, including (perhaps especially) his own son, was only another link in a long, sorry chain of broken men.

But Quiver extends beyond the rough borders of boys and men, men and fathers. The book is also haunted by the specter of the poet’s mother. “All I wanted was a mom / without wounds,” Johnson writes in this expertly enjambed sentence. Or we might turn to the beautiful lyric poem “Catalina”:

Alone on a boat
a mile off the coast, I
watched a glass squid
rise fluorescent
fold like flamed origami.
I thought of my mother,
dress blue, blurred
among the dogwoods,
thought of her hair billowing
laminate smoke
always an inch out of touch.

And then there is the ghost of Johnson’s sister, whose most memorable appearance comes in “I’ll talk sadness, sure,” where she hunkers, “alone in a closet / with a mouse and a book / of matches.” (This man clearly knows his way around some mean enjambment!)

Finally, there is the poet’s own daughter who injects gentleness into the pervasive violence as she weeps while cremating the finch her brother killed, her action brilliantly juxtaposed with that of a boy who trapped horses in a barn and set it alight. Addressing this child in “Move in the world, my daughter,” Johnson begs, “Do not heed my monstrosities.” And, later in the book, she, in turn, regards her father and utters the freighted words, “I see you.”

Whether exploring the infernal landscape of his own childhood, the razing of a barn in which horses have been trapped, or the white heat of passions violent and/or carnal, Quiver is a book of fire, and Johnson is a poet who chooses not to avoid those flames, but rather to walk steadfastly through them. With each burning step, he bears the weight of hard-won lessons he carries to his family and his readers.

For those who, like this reviewer, fall under Quiver’s dark spell, know that, if all goes according to plan, the book will take its place as the first in a trilogy. The next volume, Distributary, shall, according to Johnson, “deal with time collapse, grief, and [his] daughter’s illness.” It will be a collection that straddles the difficult terrain between health and disease, death and grief, anger and forgiveness. In other words, it will emerge as a kind of contemporary Purgatorio. If the spell remains unbroken, the last iteration will explore a world where the bonds of sorrow have been broken, where the work will soar into a joy some might term paradisical.

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