Jim Johnstone, The Chemical Life (Signal Editions, £11.45).

P.T. Anderson took a break mid-2016 to direct the video for Radiohead’s track ‘Daydreaming’, which follows Thom Yorke through a series of doors – fridge to hotel, hotel to house, closet to laundromat, and up a snowy mountain slope to a fire-lit cave: each door a border, each border another door. One such transition finds Yorke in a hospital where he passes a wheel on the wall as if, 3o years later, he was still experiencing the impact of the car crash he was in with his then girlfriend in 1987. The Chemical Life, the fifth collection from Canadian poet Jim Johnstone, similarly places the reader where stanzas are rooms and pages doors between worlds: the LCD screen opens on a limousine, the limousine’s sunroof on the Highway of Tears, the bed on a forest floor: the boundary between private and public, self and world, blurred. In the corridors of these nested worlds we glimpse, like the wheel on the wall, the slow crash and delayed impact of addiction and mental illness across the sections of The Chemical Life.

Divided into 5 sections of 6 poems each (the 8-poem versioning of Ovid’s Metamorphoses a notable exception), the careful structuring of the book works, like a building’s hallways or city’s grid, to guide movement through the abrupt perspectival shifts, associative leaps, and kaleidoscopic imagery that so marks the collection. Johnstone’s signature short line brings words and phrases into contact and conflict along borders they wouldn’t typically share, such that the vision tends to double and triple in the play of potential meanings: form as container; language as detonation.

Pixels compressed
into a demon
too great

to resist. Something
like muscle

the soul confirmed
by a slow
frame rate,

like a common

fighting its reflection…

These sparsely populated lines engage the ear in hooks, and allow the word or phrase to exist closer to the state of an object. The speed across this short line and concentrated focus on the few words that occupy them are like momentarily focusing on a sign outside a car window – clear apprehensions that persist as a series of afterimages through the landscape of the poems. This tension is integral to the success of poems like ‘Vesica Pisces’, which deals with delayed impacts: a scorpion’s venom in his father’s ring finger that disappears only to have moved deeper, a private poison:

If you think I’m ungrateful, try being betrayed
by the orthodoxy, your children,
                        and everyone else

In The Chemical Life the ills of the self and the ills of the world are in a feedback loop of pressures and debilitations where there is neither a clear sense of cause or cure. Trapped between awareness and apathy, the desire to affect change but overwhelmed by the task, these poems are purgatorial lyrics. They are damage reports in a world where awareness is not necessarily a virtue, but prone to infection. But they are also testament to the reality that mental illness and addiction can’t be simply sidestepped. Entrance to the world must sometimes first be negotiated through the self.

Montreal artist Valérie Blass’s work often features sculptures where some aspect of a figure has become overgrown: black hair balled over a set of legs, a slumped figure in a cowl of reeds – as if, given time, the interior of the self accrues on the exterior. In mapping the progression of addiction and issues of mental health, the self glued together with drugs, inherited myths, with the places where the scenes of its life played out, the figures Johnstone cuts in the poems of The Chemical Life are likewise rendered: aggregates and amalgams; monsters, demons, and sharks.

Repeat after me: do you take
the end of the world, the shelter
of its black wings, to have
and to hold, in sickness
and in health, like money
passed among the millionfold
so help you God?

I do.

The collection ends here with the poem Lip Service, an ode to end-times. The speaker, unable to locate solace in the past or a future yet to come, or some parcel of the present, is prophet to their own hand in the fall. The displacement of the past and the future truncates the timelessness of the lyric, which itself enters a sort of purgatory. Here, the same channels by which our actions affect the world are the ones that, if left alone, feed back the distress of the world back into the most private spaces of our lives, which become echo chambers of guilt and ignored voices.

Underneath my wife it’s summer.
A bed of pine needles covering
the forest floor. Underneath
my wife I thrust until her lips
are the pursed picture
of happiness. When we adopt
a single sex, summer blooms
like a liar in the middle of a lie.

The first time I heard Auden in the collection was in the epigraph, and the second is here, in ‘Lip Service’, a world in which the distances between self and other, home and country, have collapsed and ring with consequence. Where, in Auden:

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
the desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

Back in 2014, Jorie Graham was asked about how her book Sea Change seemed ‘incredibly relevant to the environmental problems that we are facing today’. She replied that ‘we have come to expect most of our poets to be entertaining, distracting, or, when really gifted, we have expected of them primarily the attentive scrutiny of the intimate lyric life’ – as if poetry, in our modern context, must choose to either address the world or the self, abandon or retreat into the lyric. Johnstone affirms here that not only is it possible to do both, but that perhaps the choice between the two, like the apparent separation between ourselves and the world, is only ever imagined.

Chad Campbell

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