Mystery Tour

Larry Johnson’s first book of poems, Veins, promises an engagement with history and tradition that is respectful, lively, and current.  Open to any page at random, and you will find examples of real language handled by a poet who obviously knows what a poetic line is.  (So many contemporary poets do not.)  Consider these wonderful lines taken completely out of context: “Or hunger hauls them glossing from the sea”; “Grass billows backward from the cliff[.]”

Many of these good lines bring history to life in good poems.  One of the best, “Red Skeletons at Herculaneum,” is in the voice of a slave girl killed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.  The poem ends “and the boiling sludge enveloped us with the sound / of vast black mothwings beating on the sun.”  Such poems put one in mind of a well-made gumbo that combines layers of history, time-tested local ingredients, and attention to craft and process.

One can discover other such gems throughout, but, after reading the book cover to cover, I found that something about its overall structure strains the reader’s initial optimism.  The book’s two sections are named Adrenalin Night and Adrenalin Light; the first section takes us on a journey from the present to 1821, thence from a.d. 406 to 966 b.c.  This is done so programmatically that it obviously has some special meaning to the poet,...

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