Winter 2006-7

ESSAYS - George Wallace

DEGREES OF FREEDOM: On the Poetry of Nick Johnson

Allow me to say that Nick Johnson is no stranger to repartee. At least that was my impression after attending a reading he conducted from his newly released book "Degrees Of Freedom" (Bright Hill Press, 2006) at Tribes Gallery in Manhattan on Easter Sunday 2006.


Tough evening to draw a crowd. Nonetheless there was Nick, cruising happily through a series of self-revelatory poems of deep wistfulness and black and blue humor -- serio-comic stuff of honest autobiographical origin -- eliciting laughter and pained gasps by turns, when he abruptly stopped and held up the book.


"I can't recall if they say size matters or size doesn't matter," he quipped, holding up the pocket-size volume of poems published by Bright Hill. 

"Well it sure is little!" someone shouted from the audience.

"True," retorted Johnson. "But as the Greek philosopher Kalamatis said, Big book, big nuisance!"

It was a typical moment for Nick Johnson, self-targeting, luring his audience in with a pained smile, and then turning neatly en pointe to new vantage.

Size aside, Johnson has nothing to be embarassed by  in what he reveals in his new book. Because for all their pained intimacy, in Degrees of Freedom there are plenty of big moments.

Big as the death of a loved one. Big as the recognition that you may just have the same faults that your alcoholic father had.

The author treats us to utterly compelling moments of nicely fractured logic and understated ribbing, both of the audience and himself. From the bartender who asks you a loaded question and then neatly slips away to the monkey pounding at his typewriter who has nothing kind to say about the humans who have put him in that position.

It is telling that Johns prefaces the 38 page volume with this quote from Aldous Huxley: The sum of evil, Pascal remarked, would be much diminished if men would only learn to sit in their rooms, if only because the work is at least part cautionary. Nick Johnson has had to swallow the horse of experience, it seems, and so far he's lived to tell about it.

How do you swallow a horse? One bite at a time. Thus, one bite at a time we are introduced to Nick Johnson's world. We're asked to tag along as he revisits the pain, horror, dada-bemusement and quest for self-knowledge of his journey.

At times Johnson eases us into it with tongue-in-cheek aplomb, as in Facts of Life: "It takes 32 feet of rope to hang the average man. In Kansas that's a fact. Do you believe marriages are/ happier and longer in Orlando?"

In Poor Company, a bartender asks him why the long face? Because his wife has just died. "I don't know why/ he asked. I don't know why I told him./ Maybe I was glad. Maybe I didn't have a wife.../ Maybe I didn't tell him/ my wife died."

In his monologue-poem One Of The Monkeys, he teases us along. We find Johnson answering the often-stated truism 'put enough monkeys in a room' by taking the monkeys' point of view ("...It's a play/ Shakespeare wrote back in the old days/ they want us to write again. So we're writing a play we never read. They keep inviting/ strangers to watch and the strangers say,/ 'they wrote to be or nutti to be!'...")

And sometimes, he just jumps with both feet into it -- as in Temporary Help, which takes the psychoanalyst's couch and flips it right over:

...It's good to see
you can still laugh. Laughter
is the best medicine. Too bad

you stopped laughing when I said
that. The truth hurts, doesn't it?
It's good though. I like it

when you leave me feeling
like you've been to the dentists
and you can sink your teeth

into anything. Have you ever thought
about biting your dentist? I did
once. It's a liberating experience.

Degrees of Freedom is one of those rare books in which it is hard to find a page without a great line on it. Here's a few zingers:

"If i loved honor more there'd be more dead people."

"You don't feel like/ a lover. More like a wasp/ circling a bowl of ripe pears..."

"Did my father wake like this and wonder/ where all the cuts and bruises came from,/ the clutter of debris?"

"The trees do watch over us. Knock on wood."

There's a subtle complexity underlying much of Johnson's poetry, but on the surface it frequently posses a terrible clarity as he shines his searing light on some tough issues: alcoholism, sexual betrayal, death by cancer, or more simply mornings that are not mornings at all, merely 'the beginning of the same old day.'

With this book Nick Johnson has managed to amplify our understanding of the 'shadow and bone' of experience, the trauma and the pain in the deeds men do, inside and outside of their room. The poems are mordant as hell -- but made palatable and frequently irresistable by virtue of the author's twinkling wit.

That's the kind of compelling self-reportage most writers in the post-confessionalist age can only hope to approach.



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