A review of Tracings by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

These are ordinary days, and ordinary recollections, make extraordinary by the power of Howard-Johnson’s observation and the tension between sensation and hindsight. Peppered with imagery that is heady and evocative, this is poetry both historical and psychological.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Finishing Line Press
$12, paper, October 2005

Tracings is a relatively small collection of poems–only 29 in total, but the impact belies its size. Carolyn Howard-Johnson has chosen well, producing a quiet and evocative collection which goes deep under the surface of everyday life and recollection to muse on such subjects as life, death, love, and loss. At first glance the poetry seems light, but the moment’s respite–a wild holly hock or dead insect on the carpet, becomes a melancholy epiphany, looking coolly into the fragile, tenacious nature of life:

Tracings. Echoes. Deeds done
and undone, transformed
existence, loved ones here and gone. (“An Apparition”)

The poems are heavily rooted in place and time, from the claustrophobia of Utah in the 1940s to the lonely airspace of a flight between Utah and Los Angeles. These are ordinary days, and ordinary recollections, make extraordinary by the power of Howard-Johnson’s observation and the tension between sensation and hindsight. Peppered with imagery that is heady and evocative, the poetry is both historical and psychological. Howard Johnson conjures Utah during World War Two from a child‘s perspective, uniting the dark “velvet“ night with the loss of a father, an air raid siren, grosgrain ribbons and the smell of gabardine. The impact is immediate:

Oh, nothing, an air raid
my mother answers
as if her words were lyrics
she wanted to forget.
Would the lights return
charged with that sound that split
my father’s hand from mine. (“Earliest Remembered Sound”)

Most of the poetry tends towards the iconic, full of American symbols like Wonderbread, Lux, Barbasol, Kerr canning jars, Keds, Barbie, Guess jeans, Chevrolet, Hershey’s Kisses, Jell-o, or a 1940s Fostoria Bowl, each evoking a certain time and place, and lending a concrete visual image in the midst of introspection. The landscape is deftly portrayed through a child’s eye, from the impact of war on a child left behind, or the helplessness of a child facing a lie about her parents’ divorce. The poetry manages to be simultaneously immediate and distanced, as if we were in the mind or heart of an older, wiser observer, at the same time as we are experiencing the moment firsthand. It is an eerie combination of voyeur and participant, as we watch an older man and younger woman come together in “From the Observation Deck,” or LA burn in “Faith in LA”:

Peaks protrude through
an undulating mix of cloud and smoke
and I, even knowing my home may be
charred timbers, see how lovely, lovely
this masked inferno is.

There is melancholy, but also a kind of muted joy, in revisiting places, people, and times now gone. The past is a series of sensations, images in a snapshot (“Portraits and Poses”), or sensory impressions, which in a Proustian way, reveal themselves only with distance. The landscape of youth, lost innocence and beauty is mourned, but at the same time, there is pride in wisdom and age, and the development of a new kind of beauty:

Our observations are
time congealed; we believe our
bent perceptions, that an event begins and
ends, that time separates one from another.
I reason (if I can trust my reason still)
that my metaphors, squashed like putty,
pulled like taffy, piled line on line
in a mixing dish, transparent or not,
are clear and real today and yesterday
if only because I thought
of them that way. (“Poetry, Quantum Mechanics and Other Trifles“)

Tracings is a warm and wonderful collection of poems. None of the poems are overtly ornate or rhetorical, and however melancholy the memory, Howard-Johnson resists the urge towards sentimentality. The poetry is always slouching towards the bigger meaning, turning the micro perspective of the moment into the broader macro perspective of the poet-god. The poems are immediately accessible and will appeal to readers from all backgrounds, but their simplicity belies the fact that these are profound pieces, worthy of re-readings.

Tracings is due for publication in October, but may be pre-ordered (free of shipping charges in the US) from Finishing Line Press. Go to http://finishinglinepress.com. Click 2005 Releases, scroll to 6th row down. For more information about Carolyn Howard-Johnson visit: http://carolynhowardjohnson.com