Basic Disaster Supplies Kit
By Marci Rae Johnson
Steel Toe Books
Reviewed by Kjerstin Kauffman
Marci Rae Johnson's second book, Basic Disaster Supplies Kit, explores religion and power in a way that should appeal to a wide audience. The poems are accessible, sarcastic, and grounded in offbeat internet trivia and well-pitched self-deprecation, an antidote to more anguished forms of metaphysical inquiry.
Supplies Kit impugns institutionalized power even as it confesses some basic desire for it. The obligatory dead white males and establishment poets appear with glib anachronisms, disrobed and dismayed. In a poem overtly reminiscent of Sharon Olds (in subject if not in style), Churchill has a "plainly visibly dong." He's
. . . not a young man but he stands
with his hands on his hips and looks
straight at the camera as if he knows
you will want him in you tonight
after he pulls off his Lycra suit.
Johnson's T.S. Eliot has children who "have become whores and / vipers and slaves to the $1.99 dessert / shooters at Applebees," while Eliot himself will "read the fine print, / sign at the X and shave the extra / hair 'down there.'" Emily Dickinson "visited the salon / for a new cut and dye job" but got a manicure that "didn't last." Even Mr. Rogers, the naïve embodiment of middle-class suburban American civic responsibility and inclusiveness, and the figure most sacred to childhood, is "flipping you off."
This instinct to reflect on and prod against established authority is bolstered by something far more personal, however. Whoever the speaker is here (and it does seem to be a fairly consistent one throughout), her implicit acceptance of a framework that views reality in terms of power and oppression means that she is forced to reevaluate not just her religion, but her desire as a poet for transcendent experience. She's lost the knack for reverence: and far from being freeing, this loss is painful. She can't seem to look at something without being affronted or affronting, without, as she puts it, a "vulgar lack of wing."
So there is a tremendous sense of frustration driving these expressions. For this poet, "the window won't open." The "you" she wants (which can often be read as both divinity and a human person) is "driving in the dark" while she "sit[s] at home Googling Oprah." In fact, the "you"
. . . can't
love me even though I'm impressively close
if you look this way on the screen
a slice of cosmos as thin as paper, thin
as my voice on the phone today
four hours away and nothing
more I can say.
The can't is key. This poet can't transcend her way of seeing, her world of rattling statistics and instantaneous information, of fucked up relationships and the detritus of denial, of overworked artistic touchstones (Icarus, corpse decomposition, Jesus, a beached whale), of personal unluckiness and looming natural disaster. In her present moment, "82 million people have already / been born this year" and "only 35 million have died." "Jesus has performed 12,100,000 miracles / on Google." And though the speaker might be aware of the possibility of love as an alternative to bitterness, still her "heart remains hard / as the children go out in the waves."
Everything is working against "otherworldly grace," if you will. This is reflected even in the forms of the poems. Most of them are block stanzas or, occasionally, couplets. They show little stylistic inventiveness, little to distinguish them from lineated prose aside from a few "heightened," foreseeable rhythmic patterns (e.g., ending the poem with an isolated two-beat phrase: "The walls high." Or, "The sun and seed."). Line breaks fall fairly predictably along an (apparently unintentional) tetrameter or pentameter baseline. Metaphor and symbol subsist at a low ebb. Instead, the lyrics rely on tonal variation and non-sequiturs to achieve a sense of irony, relaying direct experience casually, intimately, often bitterly, sometimes tenderly. The narrator/poet (these pieces are often self-referential) suggests more than once that she just doesn't have time the time or energy to push herself artistically; she's offering what she can, we can take it or leave it.
And yet, all this makes it the more surprising that Basic Disaster Supplies Kit can be understood essentially as an expression of belief. These are not poems that really care, on the whole, how many beats they have in each line, or whether each phrase in them is articulated with the most metaphorically shaded diction or the most nuanced frame of reference possible (again, perhaps, reflecting a resistance to power structures). If there's something potentially offensive about their sense of humor, there's also something gutsy and yearning. In "O That With Yonder Sacred Throng," an altar has caught on fire behind a pastor whose "thick hair waves at a part / so straight the Israelites could pass / through to the Promised Land:"
. . . Shall we finish
the final hymn? Remark on the too
obvious symbolism? No, let's throw
our bodies back on the flames Old Testament
style like a people uncivilized by bulletins
and keyboards and cupped ceiling lights
But living in the raw wind, the hunger.
The sand in our upturned faces.
Something palpable lies at the heart of even a banal religious experience for this poet, something "raw," primary, and necessary. In fact, I felt the poems wouldn't be so concerned with their own tendency to flippant bitterness and cynicism if they weren't also trying to express a compelling reason to resist this. When Mr. Rogers is "flipping you off," for example, the speaker doesn't point this out to mock him, but to emphasize a painful awareness that all potentially good things, things we trust in childhood, like television shows—or religion—can viably be called a sick joke.
And yet the poems still insist that meaning is found where we least expect it. For a woman bitter in a midlife marriage, thinking of last night's "pastoral visit from her lover," the toast "on the plate half eaten was / the forgotten face of Jesus." In "The Parable of the Great Banquet" we are urged to "taste and see / that the tree is good and lives / deeper beneath than above, / grows like a secret in the dark."
These are not poems for the sanctimonious, whether atheist or religious. They're for those who know the "secret in the dark"—the place where "accidental porn" happens, where failure and bitterness and obsessive Google searches occur, where we want to defy institutions but still sometimes long for the authority they offer, where we don't want some nebulous god but instead need a human body to hold:
Bring me the
tongues not of angels but of man, this man. The one
who dwells among within my body here, the sheets
wild with prayer.
These poems argue that in the detritus of failure, in what is least transcendent, in the "lack" of "lack of wing," a meaningful poetry can and does exist.