Alex Kostas Reviews Peter Goldsworthy, Jill Jones and Heather Taylor Johnson

By | 18 April 2018

Johnson is American born, but has lived in Adelaide since 1999, so she has a measured distance from the Trump phenomenon, while still caring deeply for her home nation and her friends and family that live there. She is totally opposed to Trump and each poem is a retort to its preceding quote, and yet it is indirect. Jones works in metaphor and personal details, or else she constructs tiny worlds for us to peek into, worlds that lay bare the absurdity of Trump’s off-the-cuff-yet-purposely-constructed pronunciations. In ‘The Wall’, Johnson creates an in-poem reality based around the infamous border wall, a bursting kaleidoscope of the entrenched racism in Western culture:

The wall will be made of repetitive fabric,
the bones and sinew of all the Jews who
look like Jews…
…It will be taller than a man
lifting a woman who we hope won’t be wearing
a dress…
…The wall will keep
these types out: thieves & lovers & mothers
& rapists and people who can never shut up,
like our gardeners and some beauty queens
and all of their pimps and those people with angel
wings tattooed on their backs…

‘Moab’, the longest poem in the chapbook, is a stream of consciousness experience where we follow Johnson as she attends Blues Fest with her significant other, and famous singers and performers revolve past each other on the stage, all while the US President is ordering the ‘Mother of All Bombs’ be dropped on insurgents in Afghanistan. This poem stands brazen in the face of Trump’s quote at the beginning of the poem that the American government would ‘stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with’, but what is most powerful about this poem is its restrained scope. Johnson does not attempt to speak for all the world, she simply gives us her experience, her shock and fear and anger, and her love for her partner going through the experience with her. She also lays out her theory of resistance and survival throughout the poem:

Music makes sense of our world
made better sense of our marriage
than we’d been doing since October’s election

& here it was April, in love again
so we talked about returning in another five years

swatted away what-ifs like we were doing the shag

death not an option

And upon a second or third reading of Johnson’s chapbook, it started to feel like part of her resistance to Trump is to simply not engage with him or his ideas. This is not a debate over the future of Western democratic liberalism, Johnson seems to say in her later poems, this is instead a vignette of one woman’s life: her loved ones and her memories and her thoughts. Trump and his pseudo-populist spouting cannot be allowed to overshadow Johnson’s life or those of her children.

Poems and chapbooks sometimes feel like relics of a past time. But these three books show just how alive, diverse, and thriving contemporary Australian poetry is, even in South Australia alone. Reading from these simple, affordable chapbooks reminded me that poetry can be for the masses and still be thought-provoking and boundary-pushing, especially when the books are written by poets who know what they are doing and where they want to take their readers.

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