Introducing Sara Eliza Johnson
Introduction by Martha Collins
As I was making my way through the forty or so manuscripts sent to me by the National Poetry Series several months ago—a selection made from over 1,200 entries—I found myself impressed by much that I read: my maybe pile was promising, though no clear winner was emerging. Then, almost at the bottom of the box, I came upon Sara Eliza Johnson’s Bone Map. I didn’t of course know anything about her at the time, but I knew almost immediately that I’d found my winner. Poem after stunning poem, with nary a glitch, and a strong emotional arc: this was it.
Here’s the blurb I wrote for Bone Map: “The territory mapped in this gorgeous book—first a forest with animals, then water and winter ice—is wracked by violence, war, and loss, with the bones and viscera of the living and dead laying claim to our attention. But it is also a world of dream and vision: ‘All moments will shine if you cut them open,’ the poet says. And though the process is often brutal, as war edges toward apocalypse, then quiets to elegiac ache, a fierce beauty emerges, line by line, image by image, transforming darkness as well as light.”
It’s my very great pleasure to introduce Sara Eliza Johnson to Pleiades readers, in anticipation of her publication debut in August. I’m very happy that Milkweed Editions will be publishing Bone Map, and that a large audience will soon have the opportunity to read the book that first delighted me some months ago.
4 Poems by Sara Eliza Johnson
When There Is Burning Instead
After the war, after they have torn the sinews
from the necks of sheep
in the countryside, the wolves
will come down from their forest
into the city, to eat the raw meat,
to lap blood from bone-bowls,
their paws against the roads
like the beat of a transplanted heart.
They will compass about me
where I lie. They will curiously graze
their teeth against my cheek
and lick the scrape on my hand
and I will not be afraid of them
because my blood is bitter
and my marrow rancid
and my skin is a linen of bees
and my tongue is split
into two songs, two branches
that grow soured figs
up through the charred
rubble of my throat. And I will sing
one into your mouth
if it would comfort you,
and I will sing the other
to comfort them,
though they will only hear me howling.
I dream a pack of boys plays baseball in the road. The boys bat with an animal femur, and use a blackbird for a ball. All around them, bombs break the roofs of houses, break the cathedral glass and the cloud, break the shawled head of a woman, break the stone road apart, and the carriage horse’s back. A boy swings and hits the ball, which is bleeding now, a mangled black lung wheezing through the air. When it reaches the sky, the blackbird breaks into many blackbirds. The blackbirds descend on the boys. Above, the war drones and swarms. No one can see me here. I hide under a thought of light, not incineration. The thought is a cloak I wake into gently: it is cold in the room, and I am hungry but whole. I open my eyes, climb out of bed. I pull a sweater over my head, fill the kettle. I break the hand, slice the heart—I mean I break the bread, slice the apple—and eat them.
Lost in the forest one night, we find the body
of a wolf, its throat torn open,
the wound a cupful of rippling
black milk, where maggots curl star-white
in their glistening darkness.
The eyes hum with flies, which drone a joy
in the bones, the brain, wander
into the labyrinth through the tongue,
still hanging out in half-howl.
We keep walking, holding out our hands
to feel our way through the dark
as if we could touch as it touches,
know it as it knows the stars
that float in the vacuum of its voice,
that grow brighter and louder
until it unsays them, takes them
back. I know first there was light
to give the void a shape. I know
what has no beginning cannot end.
I can hardly see your face out here
but I can hear you breathing.
Your voice opens and says
I think the path is this way,
floats out, crosses to me
in a little cloud-boat and is gone—
Keep talking. How did the story go?
How dark it was inside the wolf,
which had begun as a clump
of darkness inside another wolf.
Then the child climbed out its belly
shining, without a name—
with only a red cap by which to call her
and the animal guts in her hands.
The deer walks the forest at night
and all the leaves bend to touch it.
It walks faster
and its hooves against dead leaves
rustle the sound of water.
Between its antlers a hole
deepens: an eye that remembers
nothing it has seen.
I shoot it, then cut away the meat,
which I must haul on my back
till it rots,
but never eat. This is the task I must do
again and again as penance
for a world destroyed.
But tonight, I linger: I saw
a femur in half to glimpse the glow
of the honeycomb
dripping through it, a relic
in the surrounding darkness,
and the eye between my ribs
tears open—a memory beginning
again to beat. Love has been gone
for some time now.
I have sawed through my own leg
trying to find the way back.