By Jeffrey L. Johnson. Fernwood Press, 2023. 78 pages. $16/paperback.

Jeffrey Johnson’s book of poems Babylon takes its reader on a journey through the thoroughfares and interstices of exile. This is not the exile of the old times: that of sitting down by the waters and weeping for the loss of home. It is the exile of our current condition: where things are so different from what they once seemed to be that we cannot even know clearly what we have lost.

The opening poem, “Sovereign,” moves seamlessly from the image of a rooster next door, reigning and dominating hens who hope in “undertones,” to picturing those humans who long “to find a way out of confinement” through shamans, priests, gurus, and yogis—even through “social scientists”—and closes with a deft portrait of an obviously privileged “middle-age man” who will likely “puff / his chest and crow bluster to the sun.” The poem subtly and expertly frames our topsy-turvy milieu du jour: the spinning and tilting top of our contemporary existence where strongmen find favor among the electorate, and their shape-shifting becomes so normalized that we cannot see what’s up or down. Ours is a postmodern, exilic state indeed.

Johnson’s poems are steeped in the past—in references biblical and historical, in places storied from ancient times—but their language and their perspective are deeply of our moment. They speak to a condition that is curiously new, yet the allusions to the Song of Simeon, Babylonian captivity, Gaza, and Jerusalem twist those things of old into even stranger and more distant ones. This dislocation can leave a kind of “lead taste” in one’s mouth, or soul for that matter, as Johnson puts it in the final poem of the book, “Question for an Exile,” making one feel “bitter,” scarred, and pierced. But that’s where we find ourselves in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, especially those of us who have nurtured a commitment to the spiritual life, even as its foundation seems to have swept out with the receding tide.

Although exile is a commanding theme for this collection, there are certainly poems that speak to other conditions. There’s hopefulness, for example, in “Religion in America,” which counters the “Numbers and statistics” about declining faith communities in the United States with the “kiss of a baby’s breath / on a grandparent’s cheek,” a simple act of love and connection that raises hope and reminds us of the continuity of family in the midst of diminishment. In “Nunc Dimittis,” the speaker turns the threat of a “nor’easter” into an opportunity to ditch the morning schedule and “sing in a day of rest with songs / in four parts at the piano.” “When You Get Out of the House” reminds us that going out and observing the natural world—ducks, in this poem—always brings wonder, and a bird’s crown becomes a “pompadour.” “Come Back Here, Boy” gives us a portrait of Corky, “the best dog of [the speaker’s] life.”

Still, the book’s overall tone, while not fully elegiac, is a muted puzzlement at the world we have inherited/built/found right here, right now, where, as the book’s title poem quips: “There is more than enough sadness / to go around.” While bemoaning this often frustrating state of affairs, these poems turn us back to ritual, celebration, awareness, and nature as the antidote to despair. Even in Babylon, where there is so much sadness, there are always those who:

with a gift for it, rehearse
silence they feel beneath the sand,
under pastures and vineyards, above
earth’s jumble and tin, rhythms
rebounding off the skin of a drum,
rippling to flood desert wadis and soak
the crevices of our human brains.

Readers will find much to admire in this book of poems. There may be no easy comforting here, but there is the reassurance that you are looking reality in the very face.

James W. Hood retired from a long career teaching English literature and writing at Guilford College. He is a member of Friendship Meeting in Greensboro, N.C. (North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative). He spends lots of time now in the workshop making custom furniture and walking forest paths whenever possible.

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