Momentum and Space: A Review of Kathleen Johnson’s Subterranean Red
Norman, Oklahoma: Mongrel Empire Press, 2012.
Kathleen Johnson’s Subterranean Red is a collection of 1) poetic meditations about the place of the self in the world and 2) free verse narratives about family events and personalities. Race, self, and family are all suffering, ambiguous journeys in Johnson’s witness of the world, and this witness is typically symbolized by the Trail of Tears, a haunting presence drawn from the poet’s Cherokee heritage.
In the poems “Spring Pilgrimage to Tahlequah” and “Camp Houston,” this symbol of the suffering journey becomes a modern myth of the American highway. In the latter unassuming poem, Johnson hits a mythic chord in the psyche of modern Western Americans who alternately escape from or plummet toward—on great grey winding ribbons of asphalt—whatever dysfunctional family event while the indifferent landscape mutters its secrets to itself.
Family poems that examine alcoholism see a shift in the root symbol from momentum to space, from the road to the subterranean, that red realm of need and despair and rage. Alcohol triggers glimpses into that realm as it turns Dad into Monster Daddy. It dismantles the life of the “handsome Oklahoma farm boy” in “FFA Jacket,” “Father’s Day,” and “Halloween.”
This author admits to a certain bias in reading Subterranean Red. With the large exception of not being Native American, he shares many of the same experiences. This stanza from “Wild Sand Plums” could be his mother’s epitaph:
I pass by the empty house
where Mother lived when she was a girl
She’s gone a year now. Her heart gave out
here in the same county she was born into,
barely a mile from the old homeplace.
But reading for mere self-recognition makes poetry an entertainment, a commodified sentimentality. Composed with heart and craft, the stronger poems of this collection force us to see the limitations of ourselves.
Reviewed by Hugh Tribbey