Sunday, February 22, 2009

Brian Johnson's "Torch Lake"--- Good Writing, but Not Exciting (a mixed review)

I've read Brian Johnson's "Torch Lake (& other poems)" three times now and I have very mixed feelings about it.

In a nutshell: it's good writing (sometimes very good) but not exciting (not all the time, but most, or a lot of it anyways). See, even my nutshell is qualified and complicated.

In the book's third poem "Postcard: Patio in Nice" Johnson writes "I am doomed" and then a bit later "It is a heavy curtain." In the 2nd poem (Mexico) of Section II, "He Lived in Exile for Many Years..."-- we encounter "stray dogs and laughing kids (that) make you think that your moment has gone, and it has."

In a generally bleak book this 2nd section, the middle section, is the bleakest. And the problem with the bleakness (generally) is that it's not like Kafka's bleakness which is filled with humor and often great and surging sexual tensions. ( in fairness, i must note that Johnson does give us a bit of the sexual tension... just a "bit" though...)

And the bleakness isn't Weldon Kees' knife-in-the-smile bleakness either.

I found wanting, more and more, to break out of the muted bleakness.

"Twentieth Century Music" (one of the last poem's of the middle section) ends with
"One eats the acid fruit.
One likes the exploded view."

This is what I was wanting, hoping for, expecting. The kinds of hits of acid Kees or Kafka give you. They don't come often enough though.

The book, especially in the middle section, also reminds me of a Faulkner character. I'm thinking of the old soldier in Light in August (i think) who sits in the twilight and into the night. A bleak sad figure. But Faulkner's character is lit up and disfigured by memory's horses, gunshots, etc.... In Torch Lake "I search vainly for an episode of war, a moment of awe, a visitation at dusk..."

In all fairness, some of the poems are exciting. Some at the beginning and quite a few toward the end. Poetry that tries to break out of the sadness and depression-writing that, unfortunately, hangs over and suffuses the entire collection.

Standout poems (for me):
"Olive Drab"
"Synopsis of Nights"
"Self-Portrait in Jar"
"Bread and Circus"

I'm guessing that some of the best work in this collection was made when the author was distracted from himself.

I think many people will really like this collection. I've just now emailed an old friend in Dallas suggesting he try it.

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