Jan 14, 2023

Metabolics by Jessica E. Johnson

Joan Biddle

Herein to hold my dailiness I have borrowed the language of certainty, played with assurance though there’s no such thing.

In a world with no assurance as to what will happen next, Jessica E. Johnson makes use of a more assured-sounding language to draw the life of her book-length prose poem. Metabolics describes in a detached voice the world around the speaker, to shield her from the vertiginous feeling involved in motherhood and life, striving to stay fit, teaching, and the dailiness that weighs on her. Her debut poetry book takes on the unbiased lenses of biology, metabolism, and nature. How does nature thrive and grow, without a thought?

The veil like lace Johnson places over the everyday allows the reader a different view of the life she’s living as a mother, teacher, wife, poet, and person in the world. With close reading the veil is lifted and prismatic truths shine. 

My favorite figures in the book are the cedar trees just outside the speaker’s windows, their “great green lacing,” their “dancing finger-fronds.” These ancient, indomitable trees are beings she can strive to be more like, even change places with. In fact, Johnson imagines a “psychic trade” in which she and the female cedar switch, the cedar worrying about stupid things she said, and the woman living “to be one thousand years old …. [her] body restoring itself from stored up light.” 

Johnson writes around motherhood, the tenderness (the “tough and tender bark” of the cedar) and the uncertainty of it, “birth and the death inside of it, joy and the panic it can spark.” She imagines a continuum between “you” and “mother,” on which an outside observer can only guess where one lies. “Just as light can be both particle and wave,” sometimes one is oneself, sometimes another role, sometimes mother. Always in the background, in every decision and every movement, is mother, mother.

If we are nature, then so also are the chain restaurants and big box stores that line the freeways, meant to look ever-bright and ever-living yet slowly and surely decomposing, leaving us. These structures “made not to sleep made to look as if they aren’t right now gently losing value, softly breaking down.” 

Johnson also writes around climate change, the changing landscapes of the earth, a longing for old places and the way things used to be, snowy days, youth, VCR tapes, “crust of exhaust on the snowbank and a prickling white sky promising wonderland sky wonderlanding down onto the visible earth when the weather was different.” 

Thinking about life simply in terms of biology is a kind of comfort to the speaker, a way to meditate, temporarily not to sink under the dailiness. The book makes the case that art need not be so far separated from science. Can't writing also be more natural, like breath?

In this new world where we're inside with our devices while nature teems outside, where phone light is now moonlight, how do we balance ourselves?

Of Metabolics, Johnson said, “I wanted to both indulge my love of scientific and technical imagery while writing something that would also undermine its attempts at distance.” She has created a world wherein the dailiness crosses the distance in bright relief, where children like song and a cat coming in from murder and cedars gleam equally. 

Jessica E. Johnson’s Metabolics is forthcoming in March 2023 from ACRE Books.

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