Review: “Basic Disaster Supplies Kit” by Marci Rae Johnson

reviewed by Aaron Brown

Bowling Green, KY: Steel Toe Books, 2016. Paperback. 82 pp. ISBN: 0986357510. 

[Note: Marci Rae Johnson will be a featured presenter at the 2017 Windhover Writers’ Festival, Feb. 15-17.]

It doesn’t take much time before Marci Rae Johnson’s latest poetry collection Basic Disaster Supplies Kit has you laughing, cringing, and experiencing every emotion in between. This is the kind of book only possible in the 21st century: a collection of poems referencing Buzzfeed articles as much as Holy Scripture, blurring lines between sacred and profane, the familiar and the disorienting. The voice that emerges through these poems is a strong one, not just in its at times brash critique of masculinity, religion, and culture but also in its overpowering moments of quiet introspection.

Johnson’s poems have a way of destabilizing you, from the very titles (“Mr. Rogers is Flipping You Off,” “Surfing the Internet with Karl Marx,” etc.) to biting lines such as “I am making an idol from my pain, golden / and larger than life, rubbed shiny for luck” (“Comparable Objects of Worship”) or “When the music started everyone knew / what to do but me” (“Jesus Cleanses a Leper”). We are sucked out of the familiar, destabilized within the space of the poem, moving at lightning speed as one would through a dream or more appropriate to this book—the whirlwind of a time-wasting session on the internet. The poems morph into part-meme, part-meditation as we move through lines contemplating the pain of human relationship, the struggles a believer has with the details of her faith, and an ever-present hunger for meaning.  Through all this, an over-arching narrative builds across the poems: a voice searching for knowledge and experience in an age of white noise.

This destabilization, of course, is handled deftly by the poet. Johnson quickly exchanges moments of shock with moments of vulnerable exposure to the unknown, often within the arch of a single poem. In “Jesus Heals a Woman in the Crowd,” the poet focuses in on a moment of intense clarity:

                        … Even if my fingers brushed
the hem of his garment he wouldn’t feel it.
There are too many things to feel, too many
spaces where the love slips out and spreads
into the undulating crowd.

Here, the laugh-out-loud ekphrastic poems on internet images have been abandoned for a half-hearted scriptural exegesis. The speaker struggles with divine experience, feeling disconnected, isolated within a kaleidoscopic world.

At this moment in the collection, we start to examine a pattern. The immediate, shock-value poems of the first section start to launch off into more imaginative dreamscapes in the second section. Still, the longing for some kind of self-fulfillment, justification, or understanding remains constant. In a struggle between lost innocence and newfound experience, the speaker longs for resolution, whether vindication or even condemnation: “There were no teeth to bite the back of my neck, / no voice. No words to console, or to condemn” (“Why Having a Knitted Boyfriend is Better than an Actual Boyfriend”).

The characters, re-imagined and brought back to life in the first section (Karl Marx, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson), give way to poems that seem more intimately personal in the second section. In “Gravity is a Mystery,” the speaker becomes more accepting of an unanswerable world: “But I don’t need the breath, / just the bodies. Heat. Force of gravity pulling / everything to the center without explanation.” This is a world of unknowing, driven by desire.

In the poem “A Young, Cool Stephen Hawking Standing with his Bride,” Johnson describes a photo of Stephen and Jane Hawking by inhabiting the voice of Dr. Hawking himself—and the result is an intermingling of physical, scientific language with that of human desire and weakness:

In the photo leaning, I’m falling, the gravity

of the situation impossible to measure,
the lace of her dress barely brushing

my dark-suited arm, the vein of hands.

Like this one, the other poems hurtle headlong with desire for intimacy achieved through vulnerability, yet the speaker struggles with a competing desire to hold back, just like Hawking, “as if I could know what would happen next, and be prepared” (“The Springfield Fire Department…”).

Perhaps it is in the third and final section of the collection, where the threads of the book—desire for experiences both physical and spiritual—come to a head. In the poem “A Confession,” no longer does the speaker inhabit other voices but embraces her own, through a kind of appropriated liturgy: “I have not loved you as I love / myself… I have not / loved. I have not loved.” The speaker continues with “a plea for your grace… It is for your body / with mine again.” It is this longing that lurks between the pages of this wonderful collection: a longing for body and spirit to be joined when they seem so incompatible, a longing that is universal just as it is so deftly articulated and brought forth in Basic Disaster Supplies Kit.

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In addition to having work previously in Windhover, AARON BROWN has published prose and poetry in Transition, Tupelo Quarterly, Portland Review, Ruminate, and Cimarron Review, among others. He is the author of Winnower (Wipf & Stock, 2013) and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. An MFA graduate from the University of Maryland, Aaron lives with his wife Melinda in Sterling, Kansas, where he is an assistant professor of writing and editing at Sterling College.