by Laura Johnson
Cabin Bear Books, 2021
Reviewed by Nikki Ummel
Laura Johnson’s debut chapbook, published by Cabin Bear Books in December, 2021, takes a stark look at what it means to be alive. Through seasonal imagery and reflections on death (plants, creatures, and even her father), Johnson demonstrates that it’s not enough to simply be alive, but rather, it’s of utmost importance to “remember to live.”
The collection opens with the powerful and fantastical line, “My father is growing feathers” (1) from the poem, “Visits.” In “Visits,” myth is presented as fact and reality shines with fairy dust. Here, anything is possible for the speaker’s father who slowly slips out of reality’s grasp: “For long days he sits silent, watching / heaven and earth collapse into each other.” The father is “thinking of immigrating,” of leaving this world behind for a new beginning, somewhere else. It is a heartbreaking portrayal of love, loss, and what happens when a child becomes caretaker, and a parent forgets who and what is real.
“Visits,” like many of the poems in this collection, ends where it begins, creating a circularity to the poems, and with it, a sense of finality. In “Two Thousand and Twenty, Anno Domini,” the poem begins and ends with the birds, in their nest, trying to survive. “Loud birdsong starts each day” (4), yet, despite the regularity of the birdsong, the speaker startles, “greeted by a fluttering of parental wings.” Life is continuing on, and the speaker of this poem is there to witness it, to see the reminders of life in the movement of the birds.
“On the Need for Wildness” is similar in tone as well as development. “My yard grows uneven tufts of emerald” (5) begins the speaker, who wonders about the nature of life while observing her garden’s unfettered growth, an intentional choice to let nature reign. The speaker asks, “Have we not learned we wield no control?” In our pandemic world, this question resonates clearly. The poem ends where it begins, with the speaker’s resolution to watch her “yard unfold in uneven / tufts of emerald” (6).
In “Time of Death,” we read, “I regret to inform you that the lizard has died” (16). The speaker mourns the life of the lizard, even hypothesizes about the when and why of its death: perhaps it was exhausted by the “vitriol from Washington” or exasperated by Hollywood’s “churlish crassness.” Even though the world keeps spinning for the speaker, this moment is worth memorializing. In this way, Johnson is able to make everyday moments profound reflections on mortality.
While nature is a recurrent motif throughout the book, poems such as “Tornado Warning” and “I Wanted to Tell You” demonstrate human nature at its finest: doing what must be done, despite the inherent hardship. “We knew we must survive” (9) reads the final line of “Tornado Warning,” after the speaker has rebuilt part of the barn. In “I Wanted to Tell You,” the speaker makes the difficult choice to raise a child on her own, “my freedom for yours” (7). This becomes the beating heart of the book, a “sticky reminder” that we are “still alive” (10), to embrace the present because it will all be lost someday (“no fear in forgetting” (18)), to “remind” ourselves that our names are not yet found “in a cemetery” (14).
Through the detailed natural settings that move from Spring to Winter, Johnson demonstrates the process of death and the importance of living life while you can. This collection is a reminder to live in the moment, without expectation, to embrace wildness, and to, regardless of our difficulties, to keep moving forward, because that is what it truly means to be alive.