Nathanael O’Reilly reviews “Letters to My Lover from a Small Mountain Town” by Heather Taylor-Johnson
Reviewed by NATHANAEL O’REILLY
While searching online for new collections of Australian poetry in 2008, I came across Heather Taylor Johnson’s debut collection, Exit Wounds (Picaro Press, 2007). As an Australian residing in the United States, I was immediately intrigued by Taylor Johnson’s bio – she is an American who moved to Australia in 1999, married an Australian and is now raising children in Adelaide. As an Australian living in America, married to an American and raising a child in Texas, I sensed that I would find much to connect with in Taylor Johnson’s work. When I read 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 collections’ 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 is the author of two chapbooks, Suburban Exile: American Poems and Symptom of Homesickness, both published by Picaro Press. He teaches Australian, Postcolonial, British and Irish literature at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.