Nathanael O’Reilly reviews Letters to My Lover from a Small Mountain Town by Heather Taylor-Johnson

Let­ters to My Lover from a Small Moun­tain Town

by Heather Tay­lor Johnson

ISBN 9781921869662

Inter­ac­tive Press

Reviewed by NATHANAEL O’REILLY 

 

While search­ing online for new col­lec­tions of Aus­tralian poetry in 2008, I came across Heather Tay­lor Johnson’s debut col­lec­tion, Exit Wounds (Picaro Press, 2007). As an Aus­tralian resid­ing in the United States, I was imme­di­ately intrigued by Tay­lor Johnson’s bio – she is an Amer­i­can who moved to Aus­tralia in 1999, mar­ried an Aus­tralian and is now rais­ing chil­dren in Ade­laide. As an Aus­tralian liv­ing in Amer­ica, mar­ried to an Amer­i­can and rais­ing a child in Texas, I sensed that I would find much to con­nect with in Tay­lor Johnson’s work. When I read Exit Wounds, I was pleased to find a col­lec­tion of won­der­ful poems about expa­tri­a­tion, fam­ily, loss, belong­ing, accep­tance, dis­tance and estab­lish­ing a new life in another coun­try. When given the oppor­tu­nity to review Tay­lor Johnson’s sec­ond col­lec­tion, I was eager to dis­cover how her poetry has developed. 

            Let­ters to My Lover from a Small Moun­tain Town addresses many of the same themes as Exit Wounds; how­ever, the new poems are set in the United States rather than Aus­tralia, focus­ing on expe­ri­ences, events and rela­tion­ships dur­ing 2010, a year Tay­lor John­son spent with her fam­ily liv­ing in Sal­ida, a small town in Col­orado. The col­lec­tion con­tains forty-eight poems, some of which have appeared pre­vi­ously in jour­nals includ­ing Mas­cara, Transna­tional Lit­er­a­ture, Five Poetry Jour­nal and Page Sev­en­teen. Tay­lor Johnson’s poet­ics favours per­sonal poems less than thirty lines in length, although she also com­poses the occa­sional prose poem. She exper­i­ments with stanza and line length, some­times adher­ing to a spe­cific pat­tern, such as the eigh­teen cou­plets of “Every­thing is Pos­si­ble Today,” at other times incor­po­rat­ing stan­zas and lines of vary­ing length, as well as spaces within lines, as she does in “Ladies’ Night at the Vic.” Tay­lor John­son often employs punc­tu­a­tion min­i­mally, but it is never totally eschewed. The over­all result is a style that is casual and play­ful, yet not highly exper­i­men­tal. Tay­lor Johnson’s dic­tion favours the ver­nac­u­lar and is always acces­si­ble; her poetry invites and wel­comes the reader into her world, never exclud­ing or push­ing away.

            The phys­i­cal envi­ron­ment in Col­orado, espe­cially the Rocky Moun­tains, plays a major role in Let­ters to My Lover from a Small Moun­tain Town. The open­ing poem, “Sal­ida,” estab­lishes the focus on nature: “You have always been – / when the sun rose / as the trout swam / before the Rock­ies had a name.” Through­out the col­lec­tion, the poet and her chil­dren, hus­band and friends are fre­quently depicted out­side enjoy­ing nature, mar­vel­ling at the moun­tains, play­ing in the snow, rid­ing bikes, swim­ming in water­falls, being caressed by “a sexy wind” (“Amongst It”) “while laz­ing out­doors, always out­doors” (“We Are All Con­so­nants”). Thus, Tay­lor John­son com­bines nature with the per­sonal in a man­ner rem­i­nis­cent of the British Roman­tic poets. The col­lec­tions’ title high­lights the per­sonal focus of the poems, many of which are love poems to Tay­lor Johnson’s hus­band. The poet repeat­edly cel­e­brates love, joy, beauty, moth­er­hood and fam­ily life.

            In “We Are All Con­so­nants,” Tay­lor John­son men­tions Maya Angelou’s Phe­nom­e­nal Woman, and she also quotes Angelou in “Morn­ing After,” while Rita Dove and Erica Jong are both named in “I will give you soup.” The acknowl­edg­ment of the influ­ence of fem­i­nist writ­ers is not sur­pris­ing, espe­cially for read­ers famil­iar with Tay­lor Johnson’s pre­vi­ous work. Tay­lor Johnson’s poetry cel­e­brates many aspects of wom­an­hood, includ­ing the phys­i­cal, intel­lec­tual, spir­i­tual and emo­tional. Addi­tion­ally, the acknowl­edg­ment of Angelou’s influ­ence points to the inspi­ra­tional aspect of Tay­lor Johnson’s work, which can be clearly seen in “Ladies’ Night at the Vic” and “I will give you soup.” Inspi­ra­tional poetry is dis­par­aged in some quar­ters, and the chal­lenge for a poet like Tay­lor John­son is to write about such top­ics with­out doing so in a man­ner that is trite, overly sen­ti­men­tal, or sim­ply unin­ter­est­ing to any­one who does not know the poet per­son­ally; whether or not Tay­lor Johnson’s work crosses the invis­i­ble bor­der is purely a mat­ter of the indi­vid­ual reader’s taste.

            The engage­ments with the issue of expa­tri­a­tion in the new col­lec­tion reveal an evo­lu­tion in Tay­lor Johnson’s poet­ics. Rather than the exit wounds of her debut col­lec­tion, the poet’s expa­tri­ate sta­tus is acknowl­edged and accepted, but not lamented. In the humor­ous prose poem, “An Ode to Amer­i­can Micro­brews,” the speaker describes her accent as “hybrid” and “hemi­spheric,” sig­nalling recog­ni­tion of a changed iden­tity and sug­gest­ing that the new hybrid sta­tus is an addi­tion rather than a sub­trac­tion. In the same poem, the speaker declares “I love my coun­try,” refer­ring to the United States, but plans to mail the labels steamed from the beer bot­tles “back to Aus­tralia.” In “Love Poem,” an Amer­i­can flag is “torn to shreds” by the wind while the Aus­tralian flag flies solidly beneath it, per­haps sug­gest­ing that a choice has been made regard­ing alle­giance. Through­out the col­lec­tion, Aus­tralia is posi­tioned as the per­ma­nent home of the poet, and Amer­ica is pre­sented as a tem­po­rary dwelling-place and for­mer home. Nev­er­the­less, the dark side of the expa­tri­ate con­di­tion is never far below the sur­face; in “Dis­tant Cousins,” a poem about vis­it­ing rel­a­tives in Aberdeen, Wash­ing­ton, Tay­lor John­son writes:      

Sad­ness catches in my chest as I inhale Pacific mist
won­der if we’ll see each other again,
Aus­tralia so far it bends even time.
At our age we think about these things –
            fam­ily, mobil­ity, the hes­i­ta­tion of each day.
            Funer­als also too easy to imagine.

            Despite acknowl­edg­ing the dark side of life, Let­ters to My Lover from a Small Moun­tain Town is an over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive col­lec­tion. Tay­lor John­son obvi­ously enjoys and appre­ci­ates life and has the admirable abil­ity to find joy in the every­day. Her abil­ity to expe­ri­ence sim­ple plea­sures, rather than merely observe them, is evi­dent in “I ♥ California”:

Cold patches in the lake
and oh, the water, how we drank
the runoff of the Sierra Nevada
how we caught it from the river

(The phrase “oh, the water” seems to be bor­rowed from Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me,” in which the phrase is used repeat­edly.) The phys­i­cal plea­sure of engag­ing with nature is also declared in “Love Poem” when the speaker exclaims “it’s this sun my god lick­ing me / I’ve been drunk on it all day.” Tay­lor John­son also clearly derives a great deal of plea­sure from read­ing, writ­ing and pub­lish­ing poetry. In “Book Launch,” the speaker declares, “Poetry / you move me to silence / … / I wake with you, all day / mine, oth­ers, friends, those dead / all day you, and the rest is life.” The poet’s joy is abun­dant in the final stanza of the poem:

Oh the bound book! The pub­lished col­lec­tion!
The rea­son to wear my frock!
Poetry, you sly unspo­ken pearl,
tonight I wear you like a necklace.

            For her sec­ond col­lec­tion, Tay­lor John­son has moved from one fine pub­lisher of Aus­tralian poetry to another. Inter­ac­tive Press has pro­duced an eye-catching colour cover fea­tur­ing a pho­to­graph of a turquoise flower with pink and red leaves lying in the sand. The back cover is adorned with a pho­to­graph of a smil­ing Tay­lor John­son and blurbs from Chris Ran­sick, Jill Jones and Libby Hart. Inter­ac­tive Press are to be com­mended for pro­duc­ing a beau­ti­ful book, but the choice of font, espe­cially the cur­sive style of each poem’s title, strikes me as lack­ing grav­i­tas. Sim­i­larly, I found Tay­lor Johnson’s use of spaces and for­ward slashes within lines dis­tract­ing and affected. The spaces may encour­age some read­ers to pause a lit­tle longer between phrases, but the for­ward slashes do not seem to add any­thing to the poems, appear­ing more dec­o­ra­tive than sub­stan­tive. Nev­er­the­less, it is the con­tent of the poems that mat­ters most. I par­tic­u­larly admire Tay­lor Johnson’s will­ing­ness to write hon­estly about the per­sonal and her abil­ity to develop her own indi­vid­ual voice with­out regard for move­ments, trends or crit­i­cal snob­bery. Tay­lor John­son has pro­duced another fine col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary poems that deserves a wide audi­ence and mul­ti­ple readings.

 

         

NATHANAEL O’REILLY is the author of two chap­books, Sub­ur­ban Exile: Amer­i­can Poems and Symp­tom of Home­sick­ness, both pub­lished by Picaro Press. He teaches Aus­tralian, Post­colo­nial, British and Irish lit­er­a­ture at Texas Chris­t­ian Uni­ver­sity in Fort Worth, Texas.