pungent dins concentric by Vanessa Couto Johnson
Tolsun Books, 2018. 79 pages.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid
It is a pleasure to recommend books that are distributed by small independent presses—these are, after all, the poems that are most in need of advertising and general support. And this Vanessa Couto Johnson (henceforth, VCJ) is a nifty writer. Pungent is her first book, but it’s obviously the fruit of a long process. She has invented her own form, and pursued it to the depth of sixty-five poems, without divagation. That is not the way of the beginner. I imagine she must have thrown away three times as much stuff as ever made it into this manuscript.
The reason I took the book home in the first place is that form. It’s strophic prose. “Stanzas” are typically two or three lines of type, no line breaks. Sometimes the “stanza” is one sentence; sometimes it’s a handful of little ones. White spaces between the stanzas give the poems the look of pages of aphorisms from somebody’s notebook. Or perhaps a prose translation of a ghazal. Every poem has six, seven, or eight prose stanzas.
Now, the first thing a beginner would do with this format is decide it’s uninteresting to have all the prose stanzas be end-stopped. Indeed, beginners only choose forms so they can immediately make them more “interesting” by defeating every last molecule of reason for having the form in the first place. VCJ is not like that. She selected this form because of what it does; then she proceeds to exploit its potential.
What does she write about. Well, she doesn’t exactly do stories. Usually the beginning of a strophe throws out a proposition (“Let us speak of printmaking” “I worry that our lunch reservation is too late” “I’m not interested in the word according to Luke”) and then the rest of the segment is nothing but surprises, at all costs. If she doesn’t have anything to say about printmaking or the reservation, she just starts twisting up the words themselves, like origami.
I bear groceries up the stairs. You lug a cutting board, make chicken breasts into chunks. I spice. [Rhythmic surprise.]
Your prescription sunglasses have gone missing. If someone stole them, that someone has a new look. [Wit.]
Some seeds are meant to pop, the thin arm of a root pointing to the other side of the world. Mini cosmopolitan. [Double wit.]
Clocks so loved the world that we are mortal. Reminding and rewinding. [Playing with allusions and words; I’ll stop now with these editorials]
Too much mumbling in this brisket. I cut a turkey into a puzzle for my stomach. Listen for my distrust of peanuts.
The three-legged chair stands, unnatural. A rugged pirate gone redundant with pegged limbs. Cook what grows in the eye patch.
Double major in. See land whole. Sea lions are sea wolves in Portuguese.
—Get the picture? Anything goes. Indeed, the content of the stanzas is as various as what you would encounter in an aphorism notebook. The two things that keep you turning the pages are (1) variety and (2) verbal contortions.
There are limitations, of course. The little glimpses of life that are in there are invariably domestic and comfortable. You get the idea the poet lives in a very gentle world, with a friendly and interesting life partner, who owns some kind of reptile. She and the partner seem to be together all the time, talking, making quirky observations. If there were one thing I wish was different about the book, it’s that. I would like to see more bold statements. Let the reptile drive for a while.
Just the same, this was a rare case of picking up a book quite idly, finishing it in one gulp, knowing the whole time I was going to start again at the beginning the second I finished. Perhaps if any of the samples above catch your eye, you should take some steps. You’ve got enough Louise Glück on the shelf already. Frank Bidart doesn’t need any more encouragement. Why not help out somebody new.
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books, 2017).