In an essay on word-craft, “Meretricious Kisses,” poet Ann Townsend contends, “We read and write for contact; thus poetry seeks an audience, recipients who can be convinced to take our breath and touch for their very own. Poetry is a body.” It’s this level of awareness that permeates many of the well-balanced lyrical and narrative moments that bubble up throughout the 68 pages of Jenny Johnson’s anticipated debut collection, In Full Velvet (Sarabande Books).
Johnson, a Winchester, Va., native, holds a master-of-fine-arts degree from Warren Wilson College and has received both a Whiting Award and a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. She teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, and while the ’Burgh doesn’t appear explicitly in poems here, Johnson is deft at capturing flashes of experience and spinning them into something more sublime.
One example, “The Bus Ride,” reads, in full: “When she turns from the window and sees me / she is as lovely as a thrush seeing for the first time all sides of the sky. / Let this be a ballet without intermission: the grace of this ride beside her / on the green vinyl, soft thunderclaps in the quarry. / let me be her afternoon jay, / hot silo, red shale crumbling —” The vividness of colors and implied calls of figurative birds combine with a sense of desire to capture the delight of a speaker basking in a seemingly mundane human encounter.
Johnson is also unafraid to explore gender roles and sexuality, as several poems plumb both the erotic and the quirky. There’s a sense of innocence in “There Are New Worlds,” where she writes, “I first kissed a woman / after hours of silence and shared cherry Chap Stick / late at night on a bench.” The poem “Altitudes” uses wordplay and runs steamier, as “a finger slips / down, down your blue button down / taps your chest. Granite cliff face, oh El / Capitan.” There’s also much to like in “Ladies Arm Wrestling Match at the Blue Moon Diner,” with its focus on the corporeal: “Clinking whiskey glasses we wipe away sweat and old flames /… Own this acreage, / this new ground rippling under rolled sleeves.”
While longer poems like “Dappled Things” and “Aria” might not jibe with readers seeking brevity, readers should give them a chance, as In Full Velvet beautifully presents Johnson as a poet fulfilling big expectations.