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Letters to Lover

Heather Taylor Johnson’s poetry captures the immediacy of a crisp Rocky Mountains landscape and the moments of intimacy we wish we could freeze-frame.

This is a celebration of clean air, snow and sunflowers, and a home divided between two continents, but it’s mostly about the vibrancy and transforming power of love.

 

 

 

 

HeatherJ
Heather Taylor Johnson

Heather Taylor Johnson moved from America to Australia in 1999. She is a poetry editor for Wet Ink magazine and a reviewer of poetry and fiction for various literary publications in Australia and America. Her first book of poetry, Exit Wounds, was published in 2007. She has acted as co-editor, judge and Australia Poetry’s Café Poet in residence. She also writes fiction, for which she has been longlisted for the Australian / Vogel award and granted a mentorship and a HarperCollins residency at the Varuna Writers’ House. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide and teaches Creative Writing at Flinders University. She lives near the Port in Adelaide with her partner Dash, her three young children – Guthrow, Sunny and Matilda – and their dog Tom.

BuyIP Letters to my Lover from a Small Mountain Town - Heather Taylor Johnson
Ebook
Kindle

ISBN 9781921869662 (PB, 78pp)
140mm x 216mm

AUD $25 USD $18 NZD $28 GBP £12 EUR €14
ISBN 9781921869679 (ePub) – release date 15 Feb 2012 AUD $12 USD $9 NZD $14 GBP £6 EUR €7
Reviews

Johnson’s unique gift here is to reveal, line to line, how vibrant real intimacy can be when the lover is present only in the dream one wakes from alone, transformed into “Spring rain/wet earth.”
– Chris Ransick, author of Asleep Beneath the Hill of Dreams

An open conversation with family and friends, and with the things of this world, which traverses the stresses, the niggles and the sadnesses, but mostly the complexities of celebrating the everydayness, the ongoingness of living.
– Jill Jones

Taylor Johnson sings praises of the natural world and domesticity. Love poems abound (there’s even a love poem to boutique beer!) so that every page speaks of the ‘things our bodies need’ -– love, food, acceptance, shelter and belonging.
– Libby Hart


When I read [her previous collection] 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 collection's 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, Mascara

Links

 

 

Sample

Autumn

You can’t see the sky shaking
but what else can force a tree to dance?
Not the stoic ground with its packed-in dirt.
Not the scurrying ants.

A lot can happen
and does:
my oldest and his fifth tooth
Australia’s first female
prime minister
small illnesses
bursting hearts
all the possibilities
of every minor dream
overseas correspondence.
I left it all to sit with things
that didn’t move –
appliances, concrete, a blank television screen.

I know I burn
need the wind to flame
support / your hands
your voice’s breath
and all the rest, all
of it, of you.

It’s autumn and I feel it.
Leaves topple from wild wind gusts.
Clouds run marathons.

Shake, my sky
I, your tree.


Timely

Who can measure the movement of a heart?
There you were on a mountaintop, breathless, cloudless
wondering at the form of the man in front of you

amazed your breast had not been cut off
and that maybe he will touch it
later, after wine.

At 14,000 ft the air is thinner, you seem to laugh more
your heart keeps tune with the untameable wind.
That was so long ago. Your hair still growing out.

One thing the womb wants is a baby.
The mind may disagree – and the heart
but empty wants to overflow

and so you stand on the mountaintop again
pregnancy raining on you from the sky
soaking through from the wet wet earth –

is this where the heart goes when it refuses to die?
You wonder if it beats too loudly
if he can hear it beating at all.

I wish I could say this shouldn’t concern you
that you and the ridges must have your way
and the heart will echo its joy.

That he’ll hear it when he needs to.
Maybe when he’s through with the mountain;
maybe when he finds his way home.

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